Scotland's road to Brazil looks fraught with danger

Belgian internationals Jan Vertonghen, Marouane Fellaini and Vincent Kompany
Belgium, like Scotland and Serbia, finished third in their Euro 2012 group

Scottish football fans have become accustomed to watching major tournaments unfold on television.

And once again Tartan Army members will be reaching for the remote control and a cold beer when the European Championship kicks off in Poland and Ukraine next summer.

The subsequent opportunity to participate on the big stage will be Brazil 2014.

That is a party every supporter wants to be at but if Scotland are to make a return to the World Cup after a 16-year absence, they will have to come through a tough qualifying section, although there is no obvious heavyweight this time.

Manager Craig Levein insists Scotland are improving under his guidance, so how are our rivals for a place in Brazil faring?

CROATIA

The only team in with a chance of reaching Euro 2012, Croatia finished behind Greece in qualifying and will need to get the better of Turkey in a play-off to book a place.

Slaven Bilic is a hugely popular coach but he will be on a sticky wicket if the Turks repeat their Euro 2008 quarter-final success, with Croatia having failed to reach the last World Cup.

Tottenham playmaker Luka Modric is the man who makes them tick, while captain Darijo Srna also adds real class in midfield.

Former Arsenal man Eduardo supplies the firepower up front, with some help from Rangers' Nikica Jelavic.

The top seeds lack the depth of excellence they had when Bilic was playing alongside the likes of Zvonimir Boban, Davor Suker and Dario Simic but they must start as favourites and have a formidable record at home, with Netherlands and England the only teams to have won there in the last five years.

SERBIA

Like their fierce Balkan rivals, Serbia can bank on a passionate and intimidating home support.

But the current mood will be one of gloomy introspection after they surprisingly lost out to Estonia for a Euro 2012 play-off spot, with Italy topping the qualifying group.

Two years ago, Serbia won a place at the South African World Cup by winning a pool that included France.

Serbia defender Neven Subotic
Subotic is one of the most highly-rated defenders in Europe

The good news for rivals is that talisman Dejan Stankovic has announced his international retirement and Manchester United skipper Nemanja Vidic may follow suite.

However, Borussia Dortmund's Neven Subotic and Branislav Ivanovic of Chelsea form a daunting defensive barrier and Zoran Tosic is a goal threat from midfield.

An ageing forward line is a concern but Ajax's 22-year-old Miralem Sulejmani could provide the answer for a team in transition.

BELGIUM

Georges Leekens' side had the misfortune to be drawn alongside an awesome Germany side in the race for a place at Euro 2012 and finished in third place behind Turkey.

Belgium have endured a prolonged period in the international wilderness and missed out on the last two World Cups but their future looks bright.

Talk of a golden generation may be premature but there are several young superstars in the making at Leekens' disposal.

At 20, Lille's Eden Hazard is a forward consistently linked with the aristocracy of Europe's clubs, while Chelsea splashed the cash for teenagers Romelu Lukaku and Thibaut Courtois in the summer.

Midfielders Axel Witsel, 22, and Steven Defour, 23, strut their stuff for Benfica and Porto, respectively.

With Manchester City's Vincent Kompany shoring things up at the back with Arsenal's Thomas Vermaelen or Bayern Munich's Daniel Van Buyten and Ajax duo Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld - both in their early 20s, Belgium can look forward with confidence.

A sprinkling of older heads - and bigger ones in the case of Marouane Fellaini - should make them real contenders but there have been repeated reports of attitude problems and squabbles within the squad.

WALES

If Scottish fans are feeling sorry for themselves, spare a thought for Wales, who have not been to a major tournament since the 1958 World Cup.

Gary Speed's team are ranked just one place above the Cape Verde Islands but, like Scotland and Belgium, there is a feeling that they are on the road to recovery.

Wales finished a distant fourth in a Euro 2012 qualifying group that was won by England.

Wales midfielder Gareth Bale
Bale is the star man for Wales

However, they ended the campaign with back-to-back wins against Switzerland and Bulgaria after a spirited showing in a 1-0 loss at Wembley.

In skipper Aaron Ramsey and the marauding Gareth Bale, Wales have two absolutely top drawer talents, while Joe Allen is a very tidy player once compared to the peerless Xavi in a moment of hyperbole from Swansea boss Brendan Rodgers.

Craig Bellamy is no slouch up front and can form a dangerous partnership with the imposing, if a little raw, Steve Morison.

The successes against Switzerland and Bulgaria marked the first time since 2003 that a Wales manager was able to field an unchanged team in consecutive games.

Much depends on a consistency of selection and the availability of key players - Bale, on his day, can be a one-man wrecking ball - but no team will leave Cardiff having had an easy ride.

MACEDONIA

Another Balkan nation adds to the potentially explosive mix in Group A and Scotland will not want a summer visit to Macedonia, having wilted in the Skopje heat in 2008.

During the reign of George Burley, the Scots lost their opening match of a dismal World Cup qualifying campaign and were given a few scares before second-half goals from Scott Brown and James McFadden sealed a win in the return match at Hampden.

Macedonia picked up eight points as they finished fifth in their Euro 2012 qualifying pool, trailing in behind Russia, Republic of Ireland, Armenia and Slovakia, taking points from the latter two at home.

Welshman John Toshack is in charge of a side that lacks a creative spark from midfield but are obdurate in defence.

Striker Goran Pandev, who has been a regular in Serie A since 2004, remains very much the star man but the Napoli forward has not scored a competitive goal for his country in more than three years.

The verdict: It's no stretch of credulity to suggest that every team in Group A will fancy their chances of racking up points at home and Scotland face a stern task unless they can improve a poor record on the road. However, the lack of an obvious 'big gun' suggests no team will run away with it and points will spread, which gives reason for hope.

Top Stories