SAINT PETERSBURG (AFP) - England will renew one of the oldest rivalries in football against Scotland in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia after they were paired together at a lavish ceremony on Saturday.
But both will be glad to have avoided groups that threw together 1998 champions France with the Netherlands and a Sweden side captained by Paris Saint-Germain star Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Former winners Spain and Italy were also paired.
World champions Germany were put against the Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino in the draw made in Saint Petersburg’s Konstantin palace.
England and Scotland have not met competitively since England won a playoff 2-1 on aggregate to qualify for the 2000 European Championships. They will also face Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta in Group F.
“I think it is a good draw. We’ve got countries we know and we respect,” said England manager Roy Hodgson.
“Scotland is the standout fixture for everybody because of the fierce rivalry between the two, but when I look at some of the other groups I think the fixtures on paper look harder than our fixtures on paper.”
A Wayne Rooney double inspired England to a 3-1 victory when the two sides met in a friendly in November and Scotland boss Gordon Strachan believes that match can serve as a motivation for his side.
“I can see why the fans are celebrating, it’s a fantastic fixture I think the whole of Scotland and England can look forward to,” he told Sky Sports.
“In saying that, as coaches, we are looking forward to pitting our wits against teams we have not played against for a long time.
“The last time the two sides met England stepped it up a gear and it was a fantastic lesson - they pressurise you and you make mistakes and that’s something that sticks with us - and I hope will stick with us to fire us on.”
Group D sees another local clash as top seeds Wales will meet the Republic of Ireland as well as Austria, Serbia, Moldova and Georgia.
The winners of the nine European groups qualify automatically for the World Cup with the eight best runners-up facing off in two-legged playoffs for the remaining four spots.
France and the Netherlands in Group A will provide two of the standout matches from the qualification campaign. But many eyes will also be on what is expected to be Ibrahimovic’s final bid to appear in a World Cup after he was outgunned by Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo in a playoff to qualify for Brazil two years ago.
In Group D, Spain and Italy meet in a repeat of the Euro 2012 final which Vicente del Bosque’s men won convincingly 4-0.
However, the rest of their section appears more straightforward as they also face Albania, Israel, Macedonia and Liechtenstein.
Germany coach Joachim Loew said he was happy with his Group C draw.
“We are in an interesting group with good opponents,” Loew said.
“Czech Republic, Norway and Northern Ireland are very ambitious and have always had good results in recent years.” Copa America champions Chile will entertain Brazil in their opening qualifying match with the most keenly anticipated South American encounters between Argentina and Brazil taking place later in the contest.
The United States will have to finish in the top two of a group including 2006 finalists Trinidad and Tobago to make it to the final round of CONCACAF qualifying.
The standout tie from the first two rounds of African qualifying sees four-time finalists Morocco take on African Nations Cup semi-finalists Equatorial Guinea.
Meanwhile, there was a blow for Oceania favourites New Zealand as they will have to beat the fifth-best side in South America if they come through regional qualifying in the inter-continental playoffs.
In the other inter-continental tie the fourth-placed side in the North and Central American confederation face the fifth-best side from the Asian qualifying stage.