Soccer

World Cup Qualifying draw: UEFA presents intriguing matchups

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JULY 25: Vladimir Putin, President of Russia and FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter speak during 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: Vladimir Putin, President of Russia and FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter speak during 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)

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Defending champion Germany appears to have a relatively straightforward path to the 2018 World Cup after being drawn in Group C on Saturday with the Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Norway, Azerbaijan, and San Marino.

But the Netherlands, France, and Sweden were all paired in Group A alongside Bulgaria, Belarus, and Luxembourg.

Spain, the 2010 champion, is in Group G with Italy, Albania, Israel, Macedonia, and Liechtenstein.

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Neighbors England and Scotland will meet in Group F.

In Oceania, the second round has two groups of four teams - and the top three in each group advance.

Group A includes New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Tahiti, and either American Samoa, Cook Islands, Samoa or Tonga.

Heavy favorite New Zealand is in Group B with Fiji, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu.

The advancing teams are split into two groups for the third round, and the group winners meet in a home-and-away series for the right to meet the fifth-place team from South America in a home-and-away playoff for a berth.

The United States will open World Cup qualifying in November in a four-nation group that includes Trinidad and Tobago.

The other opponents in Group C will be either Guatemala or Antigua and Barbuda, and Aruba or St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Mexico is in Group A with Honduras, Canada or Belize, and El Salvador or Curacao.

Costa Rica is in Group B with Panama, Jamaica or Nicaragua, and Haiti or Grenada.

The top two nations in each group advance to the six-team final round, known as the Hexagonal. The top three qualify, and the fourth meets an Asian opponent in a playoff for another berth.

Among the interesting pairings in Africa's second round were Angola vs. South Africa, the Chad-Sierra Leone winner vs. Egypt, the Comoros-Lesotho winner vs. Ghana, the Djibouti-Swaziland winner vs. Nigeria, the Liberia-Guinea-Bissau winner vs. Ivory Coast, the Somalia-Niger winner vs. Cameroon, and the Tanzania-Malawi winner vs. Algeria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin opened the World Cup qualifying draw with a 3 1/2 -minute speech and promised fans with tickets will be able to enter the nation for the 2018 tournament without visas.

Dressed in a dark blue suit and dark blue tie, Putin stood beside FIFA President Sepp Blatter and said ''today is a special day for millions of fans of the game,'' according to a translator.

Blatter told Putin ''you make us happy and comfortable,'' drawing some applause, and called St. Petersburg the ''Pearl of the Baltic.''