By Mike Collett
ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - World champions Germany avoided facing some of their strongest rivals when the draw for the European qualifying groups for the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia was made on Saturday.
Germany, who won the World Cup for the fourth time in Brazil last year will face the Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino in Group C.
UEFA's decision to place their six top-seeded teams -- Germany, France, England, Italy, Spain and Netherlands -- in six-team groups rather than five-team groups to maximize revenue from TV and commercial opportunities, threw up tough draws for four of those countries.
Netherlands and France were drawn in Group A, along with Sweden, Bulgaria, Belarus and Luxembourg, while Spain, world champions in 2010, and Italy, who won the last of their four titles in 2006, were also drawn together.
The Spaniards will also face Albania, Israel, Macedonia and Liechtenstein in Group G.
England, whose only World Cup win came in 1966, were paired with their oldest rivals Scotland in Group F, along with Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta.
The nine group winners qualify automatically for the finals while the eight best runners-up will go into a playoff round of four two-legged home-and-away ties with the four winners going through.
Hosts Russia qualify automatically meaning 14 European teams will be in the finals in three years' time.
(Editing by Ken Ferris)