Monday, 1 August 2011

Preview of Scotland's opponents in 2014 World Cup draw

As ever Scotland’s luck in the qualification draw for a major tournament was not entirely kind. With a mixture of familiar faces and hidden dangers awaiting here is a guide to what we can expect from Scotland’s opponents when the 2014 World Cup qualifiers get underway in just over a year’s time.


Although ranked ninth in the world, Croatia were one of the more favourable options on offer from the top group of seeds.

Slaven Bilic’s side hasn’t kicked on from the promise it showed both in qualification process and at the finals of Euro 2008. Back then defeats over England and Germany had many hailing this generation worthy of matching the achievements of the 1998 side that made the World Cup semi-finals in France.

However, after a failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, Croatia are involved in another battle with Greece at the top of Group F to qualify for next year’s European Championships. A defeat to Georgia earlier in the campaign a sure sign that this team is a far cry from the class outfit of the late 90s.

The side is still built around the key performers from the 2008 campaign. The Spurs duo of Luka Modric and Niko Kranjcar carry the creative burden in midfield, whilst Bilic has such a wealth of attacking talent to choose from that Rangers striker Nikica Jelavić has remained on the fringes of the squad since his debut at international level in 2009.


After qualifying ahead of France for the 2010 World Cup hopes were high for a Serbian team competing at a major finals for the first time as an independent nation. However, a group stage exit in South Africa has precipitated a miserable qualification campaign for Euro 2012.

Their qualifier with Italy in October was called off by Scottish referee Craig Thomson after only six minutes after visiting Serbian fans threw flares on to the pitch and into the home supporters' section. As a result Italy were awarded a 3-0 victory and bar a couple of hundred travelling supporters Serbia’s home game with Northern Ireland in March was played behind closed doors.

As unsavoury as those scenes were they could yet prove an important part of the 2014 campaign. Serbia were also given another one-match crowd ban deferred for a probationary period of two years and with the games against Croatia likely to have a fearsome atmosphere the possibility for further crowd trouble certainly remains.

On the field they still have a very strong if ageing core. The Premiership trio of Nemanja Vidic, Bratislav Ivanovic and Aleksandar Kolarov are joined by Borussia Dortmund’s Neven Subotic in an extremely solid backline.

Juventus’ Milos Krasic is the young shining light in midfield with his performances in his debut season in Serie A earning him comparisons with another blonde haired Slavic Juventus legend, Pavel Nedved.

As is so often the case at international level though, scoring goals remains the problem. There has been a reliance on Birmingham’s Nikola Zigic in recent years but Ajax’s Miralem Sulejmani and Danko Lazovic of Zenit St. Petersburg are more likely to feature in the run up to 2014.


The little known threat that everyone wanted to avoid in pot three, Belgium have had a barren run over the past decade. The 2002 World Cup was their last appearance at a major finals when they piped Scotland to second-place to finish behind Croatia and qualify via the play-offs.

However, they appear to have groomed a golden generation to rival any group of young talent in Europe. Newly elected Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany is joined in defence by Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen and Bayern Munich’s Daniel Van Buyten. The midfield is also well balanced with Everton’s Marouane Felliani adding a bit of style (and not just in his hair) to complement the steel of Ajax’s Jan Vertonghen .

Above all though, it is the dual attacking threat of Eden Hazzard and Roman Lukaku that promises to make Belgium once again a force to be reckoned with on the international stage.

Hazard has been outstanding for Lille over the past two seasons. A target for a host of Premier League sides, he guided the French side to their first ever league and cup double this year and became the youngest ever winner of the Ligue 1 Player of the Year in the process. Capable of playing off either wing or behind the main striker he adds a creativity and guile that Belgium have lacked in recent years.

Lukaku is arguably an even more prestigious talent. Constantly compared to Didier Drogba due to his muscular physique and powerful running style he has just as frequently been linked with a move to Chelsea as Drogba’s successor. Widely regarded as the best player in the Belgian League it is only a matter of time before he moves on from his current club Anderlecht. The fact that £18million is the reported asking price for a player who is still only 18-years-old is a reflection on how highly regarded Lukaku is, not just in his homeland, but across the continent.

The Belgians potential is already beginning to be realised. They currently sit in second place behind the already qualified Germany in the race for a place in Poland and Ukraine next year and are well-positioned for a shot at the play-offs.

With such a glittering array of emerging stars don’t be surprised if the side that is currently third favourites with the bookies are the most fancied side when qualifying eventually begins.


Another of the more awkward opponents available in pot five, Scotland are all too aware of the Macedonians strength on home soil having lost 1-0 in the opening game of the 2010 qualification process.

Inter Milan’s Goran Pandev remains the star of the side and as his country’s all-time leading scorer will undoubtedly be the danger man. Yet, Macedonia are another opponent whose progress has slowed in recent times.

Following that victory over Scotland in September 2008 there were hopes the Macedonians would challenge for second place in the group behind Holland. However, a poor end to that campaign, including a 2-0 defeat at Hampden, saw them finish fourth.

That poor form has continued into the 2012 qualifying campaign where they currently sit fifth in Group B with a sole victory over Andorra from six games.

The lesson that hopefully Craig Levein and the SFA will have learned from the defeat in Skopje three years ago is to make sure that when the fixtures are arranged the away game in Macedonia is not played in the searing summer heat that played such an important factor back then.


There will be few surprises for Levein when we meet our Celtic neighbours, but in truth this was the worst possible draw from what should be the gimme pot of qualification.

Wales’ rapid decline in the past two years under John Toshack and latterly Gary Speed saw them fall behind the Faroe Islands by 0.07 points in FIFA’s co-efficient and hence into the bottom pile of seedings for the first time.

However, in Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Craig Bellamy they have three of the best players amongst any of the sides in the group.

It should also not be forgotten that although under Levein Scotland comfortably dispatched a makeshift Welsh side 3-1 in Dublin earlier this year, it is less than two years since Wales just as easily rolled over Scotland in George Burley’s final match as boss in Cardiff by three goals to nil.

Celtic duo Joe Ledley and Adam Matthews should line up against some of their teammates at club level and there are a host of other promising Welsh players performing at in the Championship that would suggest they will play a major part in deciding how the group develops.

Even if Wales do throw a spanner in the works though, it may not be disastrous for the other sides involved. The group with the second-placed side on the lowest number of points will not receive a play-off place, however, as one of the groups contains only five teams all results against the bottom-placed team will be discounted when the ranking of second-placed sides are calculated.

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