Game to watch – Ireland vs Denmark
Was the first leg enjoyable to watch? No. Did you find yourself falling into a comatose state as Denmark had possession and territory but did little with either? Yes. Is it a little odd that Darren Randolph might be the difference between a team making it to the World Cup or not? Yes again. But did Martin O’Neill’s team defend stoutly and earn the 0-0 draw they came for? Three yeses.
It was horrible fare in Copenhagen on Saturday. As so often occurs with major tournament finals, when the stakes get so high, quality is inevitably lost. Only the best and most experienced footballers can perform at their peak in such an arena. Denmark and Ireland have too few of those players.
What inevitably happens is that players, haunted by the fear of making the mistake, play it safe. They do not attempt expansive balls across midfield, or venture too far out of position. Because that type of football is far easier to defend against, it produces a stalemate. Denmark may have had far more of the ball, but Ireland largely held them at arm’s length.
Given that you can probably expect more of the same in Dublin, this doesn’t scream ‘must-watch’. Yet there comes a time when the quality of the football itself is rendered irrelevant by the enormity of what is at stake. The importance of the eventual result – and therefore the magnitude of each goal and missed chance – produces something incredibly absorbing.
The difference this time, it goes without saying, is that we must have a conclusion. And if it means that penalty kicks will decide whether or not Ireland and Denmark will play in next year’s World Cup, bring it on. This is where heroes are made, and villains established. Just no handballs, please.
Player to watch – Gary Cahill
Gary Cahill is an honorary member of the Jordan Henderson club, whose members have collected lots of caps for England without ever memorably playing very well. Both struggle through the fact that England romp through qualifying, barely dropping a point against countries who Cahill and Henderson cannot accrue goodwill against, before wilting in major tournament football against countries when they can.
If Henderson must beware Eric Dier and Harry Winks, Cahill might also be looking over his shoulder. For so long England suffered from a shortage of central defenders, but while the current competition may be more quantity than outstanding quality there are other options for Gareth Southgate. Cahill is hardly flourishing at club level either.
Against Germany, an England central defence of John Stones, Phil Jones and Harry Maguire kept a clean sheet, something Cahill has only managed in two of his last seven England starts (against Malta and Slovenia). Defending is a communal art, but Cahill will be acutely aware that he must not be made to look foolish against Brazil. Nor too can he be outperformed by his colleagues. A starting place in Southgate’s team next year may depend on it.
Team to watch – England
For all the understandable post-Euro 2016 funk among England supporters and the predictable moans about breaks for international friendlies, the game against Germany on Friday was a great deal of fun. There is plenty to be learnt and enjoyed from watching different players than we are used to take on some of the world’s best. A manager can learn more too from these games than a processional qualifier.
If Germany are one of the form countries in world football, Brazil are the other. They have lost one competitive game since October 2015 despite partaking in comfortably the toughest of all the continental qualification routes. The hope – albeit cautious – is that the ghosts of 2014 have been laid to rest.
Southgate would have preferred to take on Brazil with his first-choice attack, but again the absence of Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling gives the England manager something of a free pass. He can assess his fringe players with a ready-made excuse should Brazil stroll to victory.
For all England’s desire to play glamour friendlies rather than attempt to play the FIFA rankings system like Wales or Switzerland, this also allows several England players likely to be crucial in Russia to test themselves in this environment like never before. Marcus Rashford has only started games against Australia, Scotland, Slovakia, Slovenia and Lithuania. In the last three years, John Stones’ competitive starts have come against San Marino, Slovakia, Slovenia, Scotland, Lithuania and Malta. Even Danny Rose, now 27, only has 11 starts for England.
Jamie Vardy spoke last week to insist that there are no such thing as friendlies, a well-established cliche of the international game. Yet for those competing for a place on the plane to Russia, he is right. There are only two more England games between Tuesday and the end of the season, when Southgate must name his provisional squad. For all the talk of club form forcing your international selection, nothing will impress Southgate more than performing for him rather than in the Premier League. This really is the time to sink or swim
Manager to watch – Tite
For over a decade the job of Brazil coach looked haunted, or at least made impossible by the suffocating weight of expectation pushing on you from every angle. Since Carlos Alberto Parreira left in 2006 after a disappointing defence of their World Cup crown, this country has struggled to even tread water.
Dunga won the Copa America in 2007 but was dismissed after quarter-final exit in the 2010 World Cup. Mano Menezes was sacked after dire Copa America and Olympics performances. Luiz Felipe Scolari was never going to survive the catastrophe of 7-1 defeat to Germany at the 2014 World Cup. The options were then so limited that Dunga somehow earned re-appointment. Exits from the quarter-finals and group stage (for the first time in their history) of consecutive Copa Americas were enough for the CBF to see sense.
And then they found Tite, the man who has blended the pragmatism of Dunga with the success of Parreira and led this nation out of the ashes. With an almost faultless World Cup qualification campaign and exceptional man management skills, it is no surprise that Tite is revered by players and supporters alike. Brazil has a smile back on its face.
There is no doubt that the coach has some wonderful players at his disposal. In Dani Alves and Marcelo they have probably the best full-back pair in the world, whilst a front three of Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and Philippe Coutinho is enough to make even the grumpiest kitty purr. But Tite’s greatest achievement has been managing the egos and personalities within his squad, and having every star player pulling in the right direction.
The last time England faced Brazil at Wembley was 2013, in the middle of Scolari’s second reign. A team containing Luis Fabiano, Ramires, an ageing Ronaldinho and a raw Neymar lost 2-1 to goals from Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard for an England team captained by Steven Gerrard. If England have undergone a transformation since then, so too have Brazil. No longer is this a group of not-quite-yets, not-quite-anymores or never-quite-will-bes, but a team in every sense of the word. This is the house that Tite built.
European game to watch – Germany vs France
I fully understand that Ireland vs Denmark and England vs Brazil are likely to compete for your Tuesday night affections, but BT Sport has a belting friendly too. This may be some three-way action you’re happy to talk about at work.
Germany and France are the current favourites and second favourites for next year’s World Cup, and they meet in Cologne. Emphatic victory would not right the wrongs of France’s 2-0 victory in the semi-final of Euro 2016, when the Germans dominated possession and territory but were undone by two Antoine Griezmann goals, but it would lay down a marker ahead of Russia.
Joachim Low has already signalled his intention to use the friendly as a testing ground for his younger, fringe players, but that only adds a layer of intrigue to the match. The likes of Marcel Halstenberg (RB Leipzig), Marvin Plattenhardt (Hertha Berlin), Amin Younes (Ajax) and Lars Stindl (Borussia Mönchengladbach) could all start, so be prepared to be wowed by the Germans’ strength in depth.
Yet France’s forward line is worth your viewing alone, likely to contain three of Griezmann, Alexandre Lacazette, Kylian Mbappe, Anthony Martial and Kingsley Coman and possibly even four, with Blaise Matuidi and Steven N’Zonzi a likely central midfield pairing. A reminder that Ousmane Dembele, Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante, Thomas Lemar, Olivier Giroud, Dimitri Payet and Tiemoue Bakayoko are all absent from this squad. Dear me.
World game to watch – Peru vs New Zealand
Because one of these countries is going to the bloody World Cup, and it’s probably Peru and their outrageously sexy kit for the first time since 1982. Plus, if you have anything else better to do than watch Premier Sports at 2.15am on Thursday morning then I’d like to hear it.
Writer to watch – Daniel Storey
Football365 has been nominated for a Football Supporters’ Federation award. We’d really appreciate if you went here and voted for us in the fourth category