|(Pic : ESPN)|
The European draw for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers was made in St Petersburg yesterday. Qualifiers begin in September 2016. Owing to their good form in Euro 2016 qualifying which has boosted their global ranking to 10th place, Wales were amongst the top seeds for the very first time.
Unlike Euro 2016 qualifying, only the group winners qualify automatically, with the best 8 runners-up facing two-legged play offs in November 2017.
Starting with Wales in Group D (Wales, Austria, Serbia, Rep. Ireland, Moldova, Georgia), the draw could've been better, it could've also been a lot worse.
Austria are currently, and in a similar manner to Wales, exceeding expectations in Euro 2016 and look set to qualify to a European championships for the first time through qualifying itself (their only appearance to date has been as co-hosts in 2008) - however they have pedigree at World Cups. They have a mean defence in particular and shouldn't be under-estimated.
Serbia are making a pigs ear of Euro 2016, accompanied by off-the-field problems, so although on paper they seem like one of the strongest teams from the third pot, at the moment it's arguably one of the best draws – it's certainly better than getting Sweden, Greece, Poland or Ukraine. They'll probably be Wales' main challengers for top spot.
The Republic of Ireland will be contenders, but I don't think they've got anything to really threaten Wales or Serbia. It'll certainly be a tricky away tie in Dublin, but at home it's got to be a Wales win on current form.
Moldova and Georgia are two names that should send shivers down the spine of Welsh football supporters, so there's going to be the opportunity to exorcise some ghosts. Georgia are the strongest side in pot six, and Tbilisi is a tough place to go so this isn't a great draw.
All in all, winning every home game is realistic on current form, so it'll come down to getting points away – which might be trickier than it sounds. Avoiding the play-offs will be essential because some of the potential opponents look pretty hard to beat.
I would've quite happily have swapped with Portugal in Group B (Portugal, Switzerland, Hungary, Faroe Islands, Latvia, Andorra) or England in Group F (England, Slovakia, Scotland, Slovenia, Lithuania, Malta). This is arguably the third best draw Wales could've got.
Turning to England, they could easily get maximum points in that group, while Scotland have a real chance to push for second with Slovakia. Slovenia have recent pedigree at international tournaments and could be the surprise package.
Northern Ireland have been handed the short straw, though things are looking promising for Euro 2016. Maybe if a few results go their way they can push for second in Group C (Germany, Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Norway, Azerbaijan, San Marino), and the revamped Windsor Park could prove intimidating for visiting teams.
Group I (Croatia, Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey, Finland) is this year's "Group of Death". All of those sides could realistically be in with a shout, though you would think Croatia have enough to win the group.