The Week of Football – UEFA president Michel Platini’s ingenious solution to making the international break more exciting (or rather, more lucrative) – is upon us once more, with all teams involved preparing for a brace of fixtures as they continue on the path to Euro 2016 qualification.
The expansion of the tournament to 24 teams sees the top two sides in each group qualifying automatically, as well as the third-placed team entering a playoff round, which for many has made the whole process even more dull than it already was, given that progression to the finals for the big sides is now all but guaranteed.
Nevertheless, there is cause for genuine excitement amongst fans of the smaller nations who are seeking to take advantage of the simplified qualification process by securing a rare appearance at a major tournament, while England fans will be keeping a keen eye on a few rookies who will be donning the Three Lions jersey for the first time.
Here’s what you should look out for this week in particular…
Results-wise, there will not be much to glean from England’s forthcoming games against San Marino and Estonia, with two comfortable victories virtually in the bag already. However, Nathaniel Clyne’s first call-up to the England squad gives Roy Hodgson the opportunity to gauge how quickly the talented Southampton full-back can adapt to international football. After an impressive start to the season, Clyne is expected to make his England debut against San Marino – a solid performace could see him challenge Kyle Walker and Glen Johnson as Hodgson’s first-choice right-back. Elsewhere, Fabian Delph and Jonjo Shelvey will be hoping to convince Hodgson that they belong in his long-term vision for the national side, while the pressure is on for Andros Townsend and Rickie Lambert – both of whom were handed their debuts by the England coach – to prove that they merit their inclusion in the squad after underwhelming domestic performaces. While the results may be a foregone conclusion, a big week awaits for these England players.
Tell Wales fans that the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign is pointless; after decades of disappointment, embarrassment and abject failure, punctuated by the occasional heroic charge that falls apart in heartbreaking fashion, UEFA’s decision to expand the tournament presents Wales with their best chance to qualify for a major tournament since 1958. A narrow, Bale-inspired away victory against Andorra in their opening fixture last month was a crucial way to begin the campaign, and with back-to-back home ties against Bosnia and Hercegovina and Cyprus coming up, Chris Coleman’s men could find themselves topping the group this time next week. The withdrawal of a number of players through injury – most notably Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen – has not been ideal, yet Gareth Bale is fit and ready, and with the Real Madrid man in the team, Wales always stand a chance. Bosnia will go into Friday’s game as favourites, and Cyprus are no pushovers, having secured a shock victory at Bosnia in September. However, Wales must surely fancy their chances with Bale and the backing of the home crowd, and with a tough away fixture against group favourites Belgium to come in November, a minimum of four points should be the target. Emerge from these two games undefeated, and Wales can begin to dream.
Gordon Strachan deserves ample praise for reversing the fortunes of Scotland since he became manager last year. Two brilliant victories against Croatia ensured that what started as a disastrous World Cup qualifying campaign ended on a high, and although the Scots lost their opening match of the current qualifiers, they did so by succumbing to a creditable 2-1 defeat to Germany, the reigning world champions who just two months previously had put seven past Brazil. The Germans will almost certainly top the group, which realistically leaves Scotland, Poland and the Republic of Ireland to battle it out for the remaining automatic and playoff spots. A solid victory at home against Georgia – where the Tartan Army will be at their vociferous best – is therefore a must, before the Scots head to Poland for a pivotal midweek tie. After seeing their qualification hopes end in premature fashion in the last campaign, Scotland need to pick up the points early on.
Across the North Channel, Scotland’s Celtic brethren and qualification rivals will also be in action. The Republic of Ireland will be looking forward to welcoming Gibraltar – who are playing their first campaign of competitve international football – to the Aviva Stadium, and whilst a comprehensive victory is to be expected for Martin O’Neill’s side, the manner in which they do so could be significant. The battle for qualification with Poland and Scotland will be a tight one, and deciding who goes to France in 2016 and who doesn’t could very well come down to goal difference. With the Poles giving their goals scored column an almighty fillip with their 7-0 trouncing of Gibraltar last month, the Irish will be hoping to do the same in their easiest fixture in the group. Expect goals galore in Dublin this weekend.