ST PETERSBURG • England manager Roy Hodgson believes his side's pairing with Scotland for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers will provide clashes of an intensity rarely seen in the preliminary stages.
The oldest sides in international football were drawn together along with Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta in St Petersburg to officially launch the competition.
Hodgson's men were 3-1 victors over Scotland when the two sides met in a friendly at Celtic Park in November. But they have not met in a competitive fixture since England edged a play-off for Euro 2000 by 2-1 back in 1999.
Despite the attention garnered by the clash with their neighbours, Hodgson admitted that he was happy to avoid the likes of Italy and France in the draw.
"It's not a walk in the park but I think it could have been an awful lot harder," he said. "I think the Scotland games will be the two games in the qualifying stages that really excite everyone and ignite the imagination and we've got to be up for it."
2018 World Cup Qualifiers
Group A: Netherlands, France, Sweden, Bulgaria, Belarus, Luxembourg
Group B: Portugal, Switzerland, Hungary,
Faroe Islands, Latvia, Andorra
Group C: Germany, Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Norway, Azerbaijan, San Marino
Group D: Wales, Austria, Serbia, Republic of Ireland, Moldova, Georgia
Group E: Romania, Denmark, Poland, Montenegro, Armenia, Kazakhstan
Group F: England, Slovakia, Scotland, Malta, Lithuania, Slovenia
Group G: Spain, Italy, Albania, Israel, Macedonia, Liechtenstein
Group H: Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Greece, Estonia, Cyprus
Group I: Croatia, Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey, Finland
Group winners qualify directly
for finals, eight best runners-up
contest two-legged play-offs
The Group of Death is reserved for 1998 champions France, three-time finalists Netherlands and a Sweden side who are captained by Paris Saint-Germain star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Former winners Spain and Italy are also paired in another tough group. "Facing an opponent as good as Spain should be great motivation for the national team and for the whole of Italian football," said Italy coach Antonio Conte.
Reigning champions Germany got a much kinder draw, vying with the Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Norway and Azerbaijan.
The qualifying draw on Saturday involved 141 nations from five continents. The glitzy ceremony was beamed live to 170 countries.
It sent a powerful message that the finals would take place no matter what inquiries were going on over alleged voting irregularities which secured Russia the hosting rights five years ago.
Fifa president Sepp Blatter confirmed that Russia would stage the tournament, saying that the scandal-hit world football governing body's executive committee had "full trust and confidence".
Russian president Vladimir Putin told the global audience that "Russia will be fantastic hosts".
He also pledged to host a tournament where domestic and foreign players, as well as fans, would feel at home at a "grandiose international sporting festival".
Copa America champions Chile will entertain Brazil in their opening qualifier.
The most keenly anticipated South American encounters between Argentina and Brazil take 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 tie that stands out from the first two rounds of African qualifying sees four-time finalists Morocco take on African Nations Cup semi-finalists Equatorial Guinea.
Oceania favourites New Zealand will have to beat the fifth-best side in South America if they come through regional qualifying in the inter-continental play-offs.
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.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE