If the European Championship is among the most intense, competitive and hard-to-peg tournaments in international soccer, UEFA's World Cup qualifying slog might be the opposite.
That's not to say that the 13 European teams who punch their tickets to Qatar 2022 won't have earned it—quite the contrary. But the balanced groups and often-lopsided matchups don't always make for the most compelling journeys, and the favorites, for the most part, tend to win out, buoyed by a sizable margin for error.
There are some curveballs this time around, though. Due to the pandemic, the schedule has been compressed, with the entire 10-matchday group phase of qualifying taking place over four international windows in an eight-month span, starting with some teams playing triple-headers in March.
Beyond that, a few nations will be playing "home" matches at neutral sites due to travel and quarantine restrictions. Reigning European champion Portugal, for instance, will be staging its first qualifier vs. Azerbaijan at Cristiano Ronaldo's club home, Juventus's Allianz Stadium in Turin, Italy. On top of all of that is what could happen in the event of positive COVID-19 cases that either prevent players from participating in matches or potentially even force matches to be called off. What might have been rather straightforward before—and perhaps even taken for granted when seeing how qualifying has been delayed and postponed around the world—is not necessarily so any longer.
Nevertheless, the winner of each of the 10 groups will automatically go to the World Cup. The 10 that finish as group runner-up will be joined by two qualifiers via the UEFA Nations League to make up a 12-team playoff, where three four-team paths will determine the final three qualifiers for the region with the greatest World Cup representation.
With the road to Qatar in the express lane, here are the groups that'll determine who makes it from UEFA and some things to watch along the way:
Group A: Portugal, Serbia, Ireland, Luxembourg, Azerbaijan
Group B: Spain, Sweden, Greece, Georgia, Kosovo
Group C: Italy, Switzerland, Northern Ireland, Bulgaria, Lithuania
Group D: France, Ukraine, Finland, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kazakhstan
Group E: Belgium, Wales, Czech Republic, Belarus, Estonia
Group F: Denmark, Austria, Scotland, Israel, Faroe Islands, Moldova
Group G: Netherlands, Turkey, Norway, Montenegro, Latvia, Gibraltar
Group H: Croatia, Slovakia, Russia, Slovenia, Cyprus, Malta
Group I: England, Poland, Hungary, Albania, Andorra, San Marino
Group J: Germany, Romania, Iceland, North Macedonia, Armenia, Liechtenstein
Fixing past wrongs
Italy and the Netherlands famously failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, with the Netherlands not even reaching the playoff round after finishing behind France and Sweden.
The way their groups are structured, anything but a top-two finish would be calamitous. The Dutch will be without center back anchor Virgil van Dijk for at least this window, which kicks off with a tricky trip to Istanbul to face Turkey before more favorable matches vs. Latvia and Gibraltar. The Frank de Boer experience hasn't been the smoothest, though two wins to close Nations League play may allay some of the Dutch's biggest fears.
As for Italy, Roberto Mancini's side enters qualifying unbeaten in 21 matches, and it doesn't face Switzerland, its top group opponent on paper, until the fifth matchday, by which point it could already have a sound base of points to build off. You would expect the Azzurri to get to Qatar with limited trouble.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic coming out of retirement for Sweden will make for plenty of headlines and notable press conferences. Whether its gets the Swedes back to the World Cup—a stage on which Ibrahimovic has never scored—remains to be seen. The 39-year-old remains a scoring threat when healthy, but topping a group that features Luis Enrique's Spain seems a task too tall, even for a giant like him.
“That is something I will beat because I can’t have a zero,” Ibrahimovic said Monday about his World Cup scoring record. “Looking too far ahead is dangerous. I must think more about what happens the next day. … But If I feel the way I do today, I will be there.”
The new kids on the block
All eyes will surely be on Erling Haaland to see how he fares in his first World Cup qualifying campaign. Norway has some intriguing talent beyond Haaland, including on-loan Arsenal star Martin Ødegaard, and despite falling just short of qualifying for the Euros, the Norwegians could make some noise in a group with the Netherlands and Turkey. Haaland, who once put nine on Honduras at a youth World Cup, will face a minnow in Gibraltar in Norway's opener that has blowout potential.
Spain has hampered its own U-21s for the youth European championship competition by plucking Pedri, Bryan Gil, Pedro Porro from the younger team and giving them a promotion to start World Cup qualifying. That's a confident move from a nation that hasn't lost in its last 63 World Cup qualifiers, a streak that dates back to 1993.
Another pair to watch is Germany's Jamal Musiala and Florian Wirtz, as Die Mannschaft start to take a look at the next generation in what will be some of outgoing manager Jogi Low's final matches at the helm. He's stepping aside after the Euros, with a to-be-determined manager set to take charge for the final three qualifying windows.
Robert Lewandowski hasn't stopped scoring, and after winning the golden boot of World Cup qualifying with a record 16 goals last time around, he as good a bet as any to lead the scoring charts again. The likes of Haaland, Ronaldo (UEFA's all-time World Cup qualifying scoring leader with 30 goals), Kylian Mbappe and others will surely press him for that.
He'll trade a scoring title for a place in Qatar, even though he could wind up with both. England is the heavy favorite to top that group, and Hungary could surprise—though it will start without injured star Dominik Szoboszlai—but Poland should ride its leading striker to a World Cup ticket.
Which giants could slip?
Croatia was runner-up at the 2018 World Cup, but its core has aged and lost some to international retirement. Not that the Nations League is the end-all, but going 1-0-5 in a group with France, Portugal and Sweden could be indicative of where Croatia stands in the pecking order. It'll still be favored to top its group, getting a favorable draw, but it hasn't been close to the same form that saw Luka Modric & Co. reach the final in Russia three years ago.
Denmark is hardly a "giant" of the European game, but it is the Pot 1 team in its group and could come under fire from Austria and even Scotland, which is celebrating its place in the Euros, its first major tournament appearance since 1998.
The other top-seeded teams, aside from the pitfalls that could hamper the Netherlands, should widely be expected to coast. Defending World Cup champion France is loaded again and drew a cakewalk, though its November friendly slip-up vs. Finland will cast a greater light on its two rematches in group play. FIFA No. 1-ranked Belgium should outlast Gareth Bale's Wales and the Czech Republic as its golden generation looks for more achievements. Portugal is way deeper than just Ronaldo and shouldn't be too troubled by the likes of Serbia and Ireland, and while Germany has hit some lows under Low, it went 10-for-10 in qualifying matches last time around and shouldn't be threatened by Romania and Iceland.