An early preview of World Cup 2018 qualification group I, and the opening games, with a particular focus on the emergence of Iceland as a force.

Written by Tamhas Woods.

To those who truly appreciate the story of an underdog, Euro 2016 has certainly not disappointed, with only one of the five debuting teams suffering elimination at the first hurdle. As a result, an entire continent waits in anticipation for the next national dynasty to emerge.

Of all the qualification groups, Group I contains no less than four Euro 2016 participants, arguably making it by far the most difficult group to predict. Even Finland was just one reversal (of a home defeat to Hungary) away from celebrating a berth in the Euro 2016 qualification playoffs. Meanwhile, as an unknown quantity, Kosovo’s debut will further complicate the situation.

Group I contains Kosovo, which is competing independently for the first time, adding to the unpredictability of an already tough group. For the latest odds on World Cup 2018, visit Matchbook.

As the top-seeded team in the group, Croatia will be natural favourites to finish top, having now savoured competitive victory over a reigning European champion for the first time since 1996. Though unsuccessful in winning Euro 2016, the Croats appear stronger and more unified than ever in the wake of their recent success over Spain, and boast several young players with exceptional futures, all of whom will make an impact over the next two years as the World Cup qualification matches unfold.

ENTER ICELAND…

Should the Iceland squad emulate its performances of Euro 2016 in the upcoming qualification tournament, then there can be no doubt that a maiden appearance in a World Cup finals is certain to follow. The signs are already encouraging for Iceland, having already finished above a top-seeded team (Portugal) in a major international tournament at the first attempt, truly upsetting the balance of European football.

With a strong showing at Euro 2016, a new era has dawned for Icelandic football. Iceland are currently priced at up to 9/1 to win Group I and qualify directly for the 2018 World Cup.

There is nothing to suggest that this shift in power will be slowed in the immediate future, and though few would bet against Croatia finishing top under normal circumstances, Ante Čačić’s men must be wary of an Iceland team that is surely thirsting for vengeance. Three years ago, Croatia bested Iceland in a two-legged qualification playoff for the 2014 World Cup, winning the home leg 2-0 after a goalless draw in Reykjavik.

Though defeated on that occasion, Iceland gained much respect in the sporting world after a valiant qualifying campaign, prompting the continued investment of much time and money into Icelandic football. In a harsh climate, Iceland’s elite are now reaping the dividends of practising a fast-paced, indoor game on Astroturf, and it is a style which has been transferred almost faultlessly to grass, throwing many an opposing gameplan asunder.

Subsequently, much to the chagrin of thrill-seeking purists, the Iceland coaches now place a much greater emphasis on off-the-ball play and defensive solidarity. By contrast, Croatia rely largely on the ability to press high and strangle build up play at source, making for an interesting clash of distinct styles when the two sides play out their first qualification clash in Zagreb on 12th November.

The return fixture in Reykjavik is scheduled for 11th June 2017.

THE OPENING ACT

With Finland and Kosovo facing each other on the night of 5th September, the remaining opening matches in Group I are between Euro 2016 participants, with Iceland travelling to the Ukraine, while Croatia first host Turkey in Zagreb.

It was, undeniably, a spirited Turkey side that suffered elimination from Euro 2016, but only by virtue of an inferior goal difference. Had Turkey been placed in another group, a very different story may have emerged, but the squad has certainly grown well under Fatih Terim since the exit of several older players from the international scene.

Croatia won Group D of Euro 2016, beating Turkey in the process. A rematch between the two sides takes place in September, when Croatia begin their World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign in Zagreb.

Though Turkey never wants for attacking venture, it was a lack of balance during Euro 2016 qualifying which may have ultimately cost Terim’s side an easier draw in the finals. A duo of 1-1 stalemates against eventual last-placed team Latvia – with Turkey scoring first on both occasions – was mainly responsible in preventing Turkey from gaining the coefficient points needed to enter Pot 3 at the expense of Hungary.

Only time will tell if Turkey can improve, and Croatia’s superior composure and balance will ultimately win the day on the opening night of World Cup 2018 qualifying, with the latter also benefitting from home advantage. While Croatia can look forward to a straightforward home victory over Turkey, the same cannot be said for Ukraine if the evidence of Euro 2016 is telling.

Deprived of home comforts in the form of Olimpiyskiy Stadium’s intense atmosphere, Ukraine were eliminated from Euro 2016 at the first hurdle. The men in yellow scored an embarrassing blank with five goals conceded and none scored – and thus shamefully anointed as the very worst team of the final tournament. Psychologically, emerging from an international tournament with no points is devastating, and an early goal will be crucial for Ukraine if the malcontents are to be silenced in September’s home game with Iceland.

Following a disastrous Euro 2016, Ukraine may feel the pressure when Iceland arrive in Kiev for the first World Cup 2018 qualifying match. A lay bet against Ukraine pays out if Iceland win or draw.

By contrast, the Iceland team that starts in Kiev will have nothing to lose, and can afford to sacrifice possession in favour of game reading and direct play. Doing so successfully will frustrate Ukraine and redouble the already mounting pressure created by the events of Euro 2016.

Furthermore, the opening round of any tournament, whether qualifying or final, always provides a degree of shock. Though Ukraine are odds on to win, a double chance for Iceland is roughly evens, echoing the general belief that this will be a far from straightforward debut for Mykhaylo Fomenko’s replacement.

BEST OF THE WORST?

As a new independent, the sixth seed place of Group I went to Kosovo by default, but like Montenegro, this microstate differs much from fellow minnows San Marino and Andorra in terms of potential talent.

No side in Group I should genuinely fear Kosovo, but previous results from FIFA-sanctioned friendly matches (since 2014) indicate that the newcomers will at least be playing for real in the World Cup 2018 qualifiers.

The Kosovans have already victories against Oman and Equatorial Guinea, both of whom once occupied the top 50 in FIFA’s official rankings, and (as of June 2016) still occupy the top 100. In November 2015, Kosovo also drew 2-2 with Euro 2016 finalists Albania, but a victory against a fellow European side remains elusive.

Expect no miracles, but watch closely the 19-year old midfielder Bersant Celina, who is currently on the books at two-time Premier League champions Manchester City.