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Europe set for 27 World Cup qualifiers

dpadpa 2/09/2016 Barry Whelan

The road to Russia 2018 begins for European teams this weekend with 27 World Cup qualifying matches over three days.

The battle in Europe for places at the 2018 World Cup finals begins on Sunday with world champions Germany among teams hoping to get off to a winning start in the first round of qualifiers.

Hosts Russia are assured of a place, but 13 other spots are up for grabs between 53 competing nations.

Only the nine group winners are guaranteed a 2018 berth, with four further teams going through via playoffs.

Several teams have new coaches, but Germany start their defence under Joachim Loew, mentor since 2006.

The Germans, after the international retirement of Bastian Schweinsteiger, are in Oslo on Sunday to meet Norway in Group C. The Czech Republic host Northern Ireland and San Marino greet Azerbaijan.

"It's a bit of a cold start because most players have only played one game in the league. That's not quite so easy but we will be doing everything to get off to a good start," Loew said.

Euro 2016 champions Portugal visit Switzerland on Tuesday for a meeting of the two Group B favourites, Hungary play Faroe Islands and Andorra face Latvia.

"We'll be the European champions until 2020," Portugal coach Fernando Santos said. "The pressure is over until then. We have no extra weight on our shoulders and want to try and qualify for the World Cup as quickly as possible."

England's first game under new manager Sam Allardyce is on Sunday in Slovakia in Group F. They haven't played since their shock Euro16 defeat to Iceland.

Scotland are at Malta, while Lithuania meet Slovenia.

Italy's new coach Giampiero Ventura endured a 3-1 debut defeat in a friendly against France, ahead of a trip to Israel on Monday in Group G.

The group also features former European and world champions Spain, who entertain Liechenstein under new coach Jose Lopetegui. His debut was a promising 2-0 win over Belgium on Thursday in Brussels.

"This was a very encouraging start. I am very pleased with the way the boys played tonight ... This was exactly what I had hoped for," Lopetegui said.

Belgium are at Cyprus on Monday in Group H, with Gibraltar - in World Cup qualifiers for the first time - taking on Greece and Bosnia-Herzegovina awaiting Estonia.

Euro16 finalists France are at Belarus, while Sweden meet the Netherlands on Tuesday in the pick of the matches in a tough-looking Group A, with Bulgaria at home to Luxembourg.

Having failed to qualify for Euro16, the Dutch are hoping for a revival under coach Danny Blind, but a 2-1 home defeat by Greece on Thursday and a string of poor results have put pressure on the coach.

In Group D, Wales host Moldova on Monday, while Austria visit Georgia and Serbia meet Ireland.

Croatia host Turkey on Monday in Group I, where Iceland are at Ukraine and Finland host newcomers Kosovo.

In Group E, Denmark entertain Armenia on Sunday, while Poland are at Kazakhstan and Romania face Montenegro.

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