Game to watch – England v Slovenia
There are few anniversaries in life that one should ever make a point of ignoring, but Gareth Southgate’s first in charge of England was perhaps one such occasion. No-one made a rush for the nearest garage to pick up a card, a bunch of flowers and box of chocolates in a panic after realising that last Wednesday marked the 47-year-old’s first 12 months at the helm. It passed by, as is only right, with little fanfare.
It was in Southgate’s third game as interim manager that the slightly underwhelming nature of his tenure was encapsulated. England battled to a 0-0 draw against Slovenia on a drab Tuesday evening, with Daniel Sturridge, Theo Walcott and Jesse Lingard an uninspiring front three. The first substitute was Andros Townsend; the second was Wayne Rooney.
Southgate himself has claimed that his options for Thursday’s return game are just as limited. “If you were to say ‘am I entirely happy with the squad I’ve named?’ then no, because we’ve got too many good players missing with injury,” he said after naming his squad.
“The consequence of that is you could well argue there are one or two in the squad who haven’t necessarily warranted it on their performances.”
The manager could point to an injury list already containing Adam Lallana, Danny Rose, Jamie Vardy and Danny Welbeck, and now Phil Jones and Fabian Delph, who withdrew on Monday. The uncapped Harry Winks was called up as a replacement, but that will hardly assuage Southgate’s complaints.
And yet the manager has at his disposal a squad containing perhaps the best striker in the world in Harry Kane, two forwards in excellent form in Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling, and at least four defenders impressing for their clubs in Kyle Walker, John Stones, Gary Cahill and Kieran Trippier. It might not be Southgate’s strongest hand, but it is enough to get Alan Pardew excited.
One point will realistically be enough to confirm qualification for the 2018 World Cup, but a repeat of that stalemate against Slovenia last October would be abject. England have yet to click into gear under Southgate – they have scored only two more goals than both Slovakia and Scotland – and so a positive performance is more than overdue.
Player to watch – Alexis Sanchez (Chile)
Lionel Messi and Argentina are outside of the automatic qualification places in South America with two games remaining. In Europe, the Netherlands, Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal and Gareth Bale and Wales are all in danger of missing the boat to Russia. In Africa, Riyad Mahrez’s Algeria have already been eliminated from the race, while Senegal and Sadio Mane sit third in a qualifying group of four. Ghana need a remarkable turnaround to avoid a first failure to qualify since 2002. That was also the last tournament Australia were absent from, and they face the ignominious reality of a two-legged play-off with Syria.
Across each FIFA confederation is a list of illustrious nations who face the possibility of watching the 2018 World Cup on their television screens as opposed to featuring in it. Only eight countries have qualified, with 24 places still vacant. Alexis Sanchez and his Chile side face a difficult but not impossible task to fill one of those spots.
With the top four sides in South American qualifying booking their flights to Russia and the fifth-placed side reaching an inter-confederation play-off for that right, it will come as an embarrassment to Chile that they are currently sixth. One point separates them from fourth, but three points is the gap to eighth. Their position is more precarious than most.
It will come as no surprise that no Chile player has scored more goals than Sanchez in qualifying (six), but even the 28-year-old will admit his recent performances for his country have been lacking. A return of three goals and one assist in his last eight games would be respectable for any ordinary player, but that description has never fit the Arsenal forward.
The World Cup should always play host to the world’s best players, and that is a burden Sanchez must carry in a must-win game against Ecuador on Thursday evening. ‘I have the 7 of Chile on my back and it is a huge responsibility, that’s why it pains me that journalists and bad people criticize without knowing,’ he said in the face of bitter criticism after Chile’s last qualifier; he will know too well from his time at club level that there is only one way to silence the doubters.
Team to watch – Germany
Of the 210 teams that started the qualification process for the 2018 World Cup, only two can boast perfect records. Switzerland have swatted aside any and all opposition in Group B; Germany have been even more assured in Group C. No side has scored more goals in European qualifying (35), nor has any side conceded fewer (2).
That the only other team to lay claim to such an impressive defensive record is their penultimate opponent on Thursday could place their run in danger. A visit to Northern Ireland might have sounded like a fairly simple task and a fairly underwhelming tourist spot at one stage, but those days are no longer.
The only defeat Michael O’Neill’s side have tasted in this qualifying campaign came in Germany; goals from Julian Draxler and Sami Khedira are the only ones they have conceded. Jonny Evans, Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley have otherwise repelled anything Europe has had to throw at them.
Considering Northern Ireland have won their last five consecutive qualifiers, and have not lost in their last nine competitive games at Windsor Park – a run dating back to September 2013 – Germany will have to be at 100% to stay at 100%.
Manager to watch – Gordon Strachan (Scotland)
“We have dragged ourselves back into it, only because we all believe in each other.”
Gordon Strachan knows that, at one stage recently, his position was in grave jeopardy. The Scotland manager had his favourites, regularly chosen despite better options being readily available. He had his methods, but they were being questioned. And his public persona has never lent itself to sympathy, such is the belligerent belief he holds in his own ability.
A 3-0 defeat to England in November felt like the beginning of the end, with only Malta keeping Scotland off the bottom of Group F after four games. The Maltese and Gibraltar were the only countries Scotland beat in competitive games in 2015 and 2016, with Strachan clinging to his post as manager.
That grip has strengthened in 2017. Scotland are unbeaten in four qualifying games, and in Strachan’s words, “have dragged ourselves back into it”. Victory at Hampden Park against Slovakia, coupled with an expected England win at home to Slovenia, would put the Tartan Army in second with one game remaining.
One-on-one battle to watch – Omar Khribin v Trent Sainsbury
In a fixture with far wider-reaching facets than one can imagine – one such article on the situation can be found here – central to the game itself is an old-fashioned battle between centre-forward and centre-half.
In one corner is Omar Khribin, Syria’s scoring machine, and one of Asia’s best strikers. The 23-year-old’s record of 25 goals in 32 games in 2017 is not quite Harry Kane levels of utter brilliance, but it is mightily close.
In the other corner is Trent Sainsbury, Australia’s best defender, and one of the more experienced heads in an otherwise strangely disjointed and unbalanced squad. The under-pressure Ange Postecoglou is without captain Mile Jedinak, and so could look to the 25-year-old as his leader.
Khribin scored a hat-trick for Al Hilal in AFC Champions League action last week, while Sainsbury has struggled for game time in the Chinese Super League after returning from injury. Their fortunes have differed this season at club level; which way will they go on the international front?
EFL Trophy game to watch – AFC Wimbledon v Tottenham U21s
For those refusing to even acknowledge the existence of the international break, why not seek irregular updates from Kingsmeadow on Tuesday evening? AFC Wimbledon, winners of a 4-3 classic against Barnet in their EFL Trophy opener, welcome the assorted children of Tottenham.
All eyes on Kazaiah Sterling, Joe Pritchard and Christian Maghoma, brother of Spurs legend Jacques. They probably aren’t far from an England call-up. Even if Christian Maghoma is Congolese.
European game to watch – Montenegro v Denmark
Both have five wins, one draw and two defeats from eight games. Both have scored 18 goals. Both have conceded seven. Both are three points behind group leaders Poland, who are almost certain to assure their place at Russia this week. Both meet in Montenegro hoping to edge ahead of the other in this neck-and-neck race. Only one can call on the brilliance of a Lord. Montenegro have Stevan Jovetic (seven goals in qualifying) at their disposal, but he is no Nicklas Bendtner (zero goals in qualifying).
South American game to watch – Argentina v Peru
And so to Lionel Messi, perhaps the world’s greatest footballer who is in imminent danger of missing the world’s greatest football tournament. Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal are by no means guaranteed qualification for next summer’s party, but they are second in their group. Argentina are fifth, and hanging onto a play-off place.
It might have been even worse without Messi, whose absence through injury and suspension has hit hard. He is Argentina’s top scorer in qualifying with four goals, despite playing only half of their 16 matches. Just one of the Albiceleste’s six victories have come without their star player in the side.
There will be no such excuse against Peru, with Messi already having scored 14 goals and assisted three in 11 games for Barcelona this season. He will be expected to shoulder the burden for his nation and help secure a victory that would launch Argentina above Peru and into the guaranteed qualification places.
Instead of playing at their usual venue of the River Plate stadium, Argentina have moved such a crucial game to the Bonbonera – the home of Boca Juniors. Their last meaningful qualifier at that stadium came in a fixture they had to win in 1970 World Cup qualifying. The result? A 2-2 draw. The opponent? Peru. It was the last time they failed to qualify for a World Cup.
Sod bad omens when you’ve got Lionel Messi.
Writer to watch – Matt Stead