Sunday 4 December 2016

Oldest enemies will finally meet on biggest stage

Ben Rumsby in St Petersburg

Published 26/07/2015 | 02:30

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JULY 25: Roy Hodgson manager of England (L) in discussion after the Preliminary Draw of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia at The Konstantin Palace on July 25, 2015 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JULY 25: Roy Hodgson manager of England (L) in discussion after the Preliminary Draw of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia at The Konstantin Palace on July 25, 2015 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

England and Scotland were drawn last night to play a World Cup match for the first time after being paired in qualifying for the 2018 tournament. The oldest rivalry in international football will finally be played out on its biggest stage, 143 years after they first met.

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The two matches between the sides on the road to Russia will not be the first time they have competed for a place at the World Cup, with the old Home Nations championship having doubled up as a qualifying competition in 1950 and 1954. However, never have the two sides been pulled out of the hat to face off at the tournament, making the draw yesterday a historic moment. They will also play Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta in Group F, giving both a realistic chance of reaching the finals.

England and Scotland have not played a competitive match this century, having last met in a play-off for the 2000 European Championship, three years after their now legendary match at Euro '96.

However, they met twice recently in friendlies played against the backdrop of a referendum in which Scotland ultimately decided to remain in the United Kingdom. Fans north of the border were delighted to face the 'auld enemy', with Gordon Strachan, the Scotland manager, saying: "You see the reaction from the fans, just as the sun came out in Glasgow, we heard we will play England. I can see why. It's a fantastic fixture. We'll look forward and pit our wits again."

The draw yesterday in St Petersburg threw up another all-British Isles clash when Wales were paired with the Republic in Group D, where they arguably face a tougher task against Austria, Serbia, Moldova and Georgia.

Northern Ireland, meanwhile, have it all to do in Group C, where they will play World Cup holders Germany, the Czech Republic, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino.

Roy Hodgson, the England manager, and the Football Association will both be pleased with a pool that is hardly a 'group of death' but neither will it be the turn-off that their European Championship qualifying campaign has proven. A competitive game against Scotland is all but guaranteed to sell out Wembley and ensure a big payday for the governing body.

Arriving at the stunning Konstantin Palace for yesterday's draw would have brought back more than one painful memory for the FA.

Instead of St Petersburg, the ceremony might have been taking place in the likes of Milton Keynes, Bristol or Sunderland had Sepp Blatter pulled the name 'England' from an envelope four-and-a-half years ago.

The outcome of that vote continues to haunt Fifa to this day, engulfing it in the biggest crisis in its history and preventing the FA from moving on from its humiliation. Fresher still in its mind would have been last summer's World Cup, England's worst performance at a finals.

England paid the price for not being seeded, a fate they managed to avoid for the 2018 qualifiers after scraping into the top nine ranked European teams. They were joined by Wales, whose Gareth Bale-inspired transformation put them on course to reach their first major championship since 1958 in France next year.

It almost beggars belief that Wales found themselves in pot six for the previous World Cup qualifying draw four years ago.

Scotland and Northern Ireland also moved up in the world after graduating to pot three, raising the prospect of all four UK home nations being given a realistic chance of reaching the finals. They were all made to wait to learn their fate during a two-hour ceremony, which included the draws for several regional qualifying competitions.

Telegraph

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