Of all the UEFA groups lined up for the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, the last of them-Group I-might be the most wide open. World Cup 2018 UEFA qualifying group I, which consists of five teams instead of the usual six-including Croatia, Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey, and Finland-lacks the heavyweight teams and former champions that populate the other groups. Big and recently successful teams like Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Belgium are scattered throughout the other seven groups. Even the groups that don't have such big-name football nations, meanwhile, feature teams like Wales (Group D) and Romania (E) that are currently ranked in FIFA's global top 10.

Group I is the exception to that rule, featuring neither a recent World Cup champion, nor a top-ranked FIFA team. The group's likely frontrunner-the Croatia national football team-is slated in 13th on FIFA's rankings. Three others make the top 50 (Iceland at 24, Ukraine at 30, and Turkey at 45), while Finland are ranked back at 89.

Croatia's Recent Successes 

The Croatian side are the clear frontrunners in Group I, thanks both to their appearance in the 2014 World Cup, and their strong performance in the still-pending qualifiers for the 2016 European Championship.

In fact, Croatia actually have a fairly solid recent history at the World Cup. After the country became independent of Yugoslavia in 1991, they were barred from qualifying for the 1994 WC tournament in the United States. However, Croatia's Blazers did manage World Cup qualification the first time they were able-in 1998-and went all the way to the semifinals in their first appearance at the event. They
beat Romania and Germany in the round of 16 and the quarterfinals, respectively, before losing to the French host team (and the ultimate champions) in the semis. Croatia also beat the Netherlands in the third-place consolation match, to secure a spot on the podium.

Since then, the Blazers have managed WC qualification three out of four times, missing the mark in 2010, but reaching the soccer tournament in 2002, 2006, and 2014. In all three years, they were eliminated after the group stage.

While the Croatian national football team has yet to live up to their strong World Cup debut in 1998, they still seem to have a knack for qualifying for the prestigious football tournament. Without any major challengers in UEFA qualifying Group I, they should have little trouble adding a fifth WC appearance to their annals.

Iceland: Stronger Than Expected?

From simply looking at World Cup records, no one would be betting on Iceland to be the potential spoiler for Croatia in Group I. The Icelandic soccer squad have never reached the FIFA tournament-or, for that matter, a UEFA European Championship.

However, it looks like Iceland's Euro draught could finally end in 2016, so perhaps 2018 will see the end of the team's World Cup draught, as well. In the qualifiers for Euro 2016, Iceland have won six of their games so far, with one draw and one loss-good enough to put them above the likes of the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, and Turkey in the group stage. They've given impressive and thoroughly surprising performances throughout the past year, and if their momentum continues, then we could feasibly be watching them win a spot in Russia for the 2018 World Cup.

Ukraine have also been solid in the Euro 2016 qualifiers, with five wins, one draw, and two loses. Unlike Iceland, the Ukraine have appeared at the WC tournament before, reaching the quarterfinals in 2006. They haven't been back
since, but only missed out narrowly in 2014, losing in the qualification playoffs to France, on a 2-3 two-match aggregate. Speaking of the playoffs, Iceland lost their chance at 2014 qualification after losing to Croatia on a 0-2 aggregate.

Bottom line, the Croatians might be the Group I frontrunners, but any of these three teams (Croatia, Iceland, or Ukraine) could finish at the top to earn direct WC qualification. Who will you root for?

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