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Blast of fresh air as Europe begins World Cup qualifying

Paris (AFP) – Exactly eight weeks after Eder blasted in the winner for Portugal in the Euro 2016 final against France, European nations start out on the road to the Russia 2018 World Cup on Sunday.

Of the 24 teams that took part in the Euros, 10 have since changed coach,  including Russia.

As hosts, they will not be involved in qualifying, but the rest of Europe will vie for nine group winner direct qualification spots, while the eight best runners-up go into play-offs in November 2017 to contest the remaining four berths.

Former international goalkeeper Julen Lopetegui succeeds Vicente del Bosque at 2010 World Cup winners Spain.

He begins with a gentle opening Group G fixture at home to Liechtenstein before a trip to Italy in October.

The Azzurri eliminated Spain in the last 16 at the Euros before losing on penalties to Germany in the quarter-finals. 

Since then, the 68-year-old Giampiero Ventura has come in from Torino to succeed the Chelsea-bound Antonio Conte and his first competitive match will be in Israel on Monday.

England have a new man at the helm too with Sam Allardyce charged with turning around their fortunes after their humiliating Euro 2016 exit to Iceland.

“We are going to get into the qualifiers, try to qualify for the World Cup and when we go next time we’re better prepared, I think mentally, to succeed,” Allardyce said after his appointment

Allardyce’s side are in Group F, where they can look forward to a first competitive meeting with the auld enemy Scotland since 1999. But they begin with what could be their toughest fixture, a trip to face Slovakia.

Scotland start in Malta, while Slovenia and Lithuania complete the group.

Star-studded Belgium’s quarter-final exit at Euro 2016 led to coach Marc Wilmots departing and Spanish former Everton manager Roberto Martinez taking his place with French legend Thierry Henry as one of his assistants.

The Red Devils are in Group H and start in Cyprus.

In Kiev, erstwhile striking great Andrei Shevchenko leads Ukraine against Iceland in a Group I also containing the likes of Croatia and Turkey.

Joachim Loew remains in charge of reigning world champions Germany, but they will have a new captain for their opening game against Norway in Oslo in Group C with goalkeeper Manuel Neuer succeeding retired midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger.

– Kosovo ready for bow –

As for Portugal, Fernando Santos is still at the helm as the new continental champions prepare to go to Switzerland in Group B.

Portugal travel without Cristiano Ronaldo as he continues to recover from the knee injury that forced him off in the Euro final, but their coach says they’re under no pressure.

“Portugal are European champions until 2020. Until then we will always be champions, and only then, at the next Euro, will we have that responsibility of having to defend the title,” said Santos. 

“For now there is no pressure. We will look to top our group and qualify as quickly as possible for the World Cup.”

Euro semi-finalists Wales start at home to Moldova in a Group D also featuring Austria, Serbia and the Republic of Ireland.

Meanwhile, France begin in Belarus in a Group A that promises genuine intrigue, with the Netherlands eager to get over their failure to reach Euro 2016 and Sweden beginning a new era without the retired Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

At the other end of the spectrum, two nations are involved for the first time.

After a Euro 2016 campaign that saw them lose all 10 qualifiers and concede 56 goals, Gibraltar find themselves in Group H and entertain Greece in Faro, Portugal on Tuesday.

A day earlier, history will be made in Turku as Kosovo play their first ever World Cup qualifier against Finland in Group I.

Kosovo, like Gibraltar, were admitted to FIFA in May, and their squad includes striker Albert Bunjaku, who appeared for Switzerland at the 2010 World Cup but has been cleared by FIFA to represent the land of his birth.

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