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England face Lewandowski’s Poland, France given straightforward path

England must negotiate a difficult route to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar after being paired with Robert Lewandowski‘s Poland and Euro 2020 qualifiers Hungary in the European qualifying draw.

World champions France have been given a clear path, however, with Ukraine their only potential threat in Group D.

Norway striker Erling Haaland, meanwhile, will be a threat to Netherlands‘ hopes of topping Group G and qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since reaching the semifinals at Brazil 2014.

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Only the 10 group winners are assured of a place in the finals in November and December 2022, with three other qualification slots up for grabs in a playoff involving the 10 runners-up and two best group winners of the 2020-21 UEFA Nations League who fail to qualify directly.

Gareth Southgate’s England, who reached the semifinals at Russia 2018, are the top seed with arguably the most hazardous path to Qatar due to their pairing with Poland and Hungary. Poland famously denied England a place at the 1974 World Cup with a 1-0 win at Wembley in 1973.

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Bayern Munich striker Lewandowski hit 16 goals for Poland in the qualifiers for Russia 2018, and he will be crucial as they attempt to claim top spot in Group I ahead of England. Albania, San Marino and Andorra make up the rest of the six-team group.

“Poland are obviously a very good side, while Hungary have just been promoted to the top division of the Nations League, so those games in particular we know will be tough,” Southgate said at a news conference after the draw.

“It’s probably as difficult that anybody could have had, but we are confident in our team and how we are improving.

“We are not naïve enough to think any of these games will be walkovers. I can picture games against all those opponents that have been difficult over the years for many England managers.”

France will begin their qualifying campaign March and will expect to cruise through a five-team group that contains Ukraine, Finland, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kazakhstan.

“The trips will be very long,” said France coach Didier Deschamps. “We will have to wait until Tuesday to have the calendar. This could bring additional difficulties. I’m not going to jump to the ceiling. We must always have enough humility and respect for these teams.”

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European champions Portugal are likely to be up against Serbia for top spot in Group A, with Republic of Ireland, Luxembourg and Azerbaijan also in the section. Cristiano Ronaldo, who is chasing Ali Daei’s world record of 109 international goals, has confirmed that Qatar 2022 will be his final tournament for Portugal — if they qualify.

Spain, world champions in 2010, are up against Sweden, Greece, Georgia and Kosovo, with Italy aiming to make up for their failure to qualify in 2018 by overcoming Switzerland, Northern Ireland, Bulgaria and Lithuania in Group C.

Belgium, the No. 1 team in the FIFA world rankings, face Wales, Czech Republic, Belarus and Estonia in Group E.

“We have faced Wales in the past and those games have always been competitive and the Czech Republic is an always a competitive team,” said Belgium coach Roberto Martinez.

“Those two sides will be difficult. They are similar in profile with a lot of exciting young players coming through.”

Group F appears to be the most open group, with Denmark, Austria and Scotland likely to back their chances of qualification. Israel, Faroe Islands and Moldova are also in the group.

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Netherlands face a three-way battle in Group G against Turkey and Norway, who have Haaland and Martin Odegaard aiming to guide the Norwegians to their first World Cup since 1998. Montenegro, Latvia and Gibraltar make up the group.

Croatia are the top seeds in Group H, ahead of Slovakia, Russia, Slovenia, Cyprus and Malta, while Germany are the favourites in Group J, ahead of Romania, Iceland, North Macedonia, Armenia and Liechtenstein.

“We have to embrace the role of group favourites because that’s what we are, with Slovakia and Russia featuring as our strongest rivals for the top spot,” said Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic.

“It’s going to be tough because we’ve been pitted against the top teams from each of the pots, but nothing less than qualifying for the World Cup will do.”

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