Game to watch – Portugal v Hungary
The dust had barely settled after one major international tournament before qualification for the next commenced. Fifty-six days separated the final of Euro 2016 and the first fixture in the qualification stage for the 2018 World Cup.
Not that the football world needed time to collect its thoughts and reflect after July’s showpiece in Paris. Euro 2016 was a tournament of few truly memorable moments, one dominated more by stoic defensive displays and unfancied nations triumphing over their supposed superiors. Only two games throughout the competition’s entirety played host to more than four goals.
France’s 5-2 quarter-final victory over Iceland was more of a procession for the hosts than anything, but Portugal and Hungary’s group-stage classic was perhaps the match of the tournament. The two would face each other in their final group game, but this was no Disgrace of Gijon – or Lyon, as it were. Instead, a 3-3 draw would send both into the knockout rounds.
“We’ll have to rectify what happened in that tremendous game at the Euros,” said Portugal head coach Fernando Santos ahead of the reunion on Saturday. “I believe the fantastic support we saw at the Euros will be repeated and we’ll have a full Estádio da Luz.”
As in their previous meeting, it is a fixture neither side can afford to lose. Portugal opened their qualification campaign with defeat to Switzerland in Group B. The Swiss have won each of their four group games, and hold a three-point advantage over Santos’ side. Few will welcome the roulette of the second-placed play-offs in order to reach Russia in little over 12 months’ time.
Hungary will know that a win would lift them above the European champions and into second behind Switzerland, who face Latvia. Balázs Dzsudzsák and Zoltan Gera, captain and vice-captain, and both goalscorers against Portugal in France, will be relied on to produce once more.
But Portugal are undoubtedly the favourites. They boast home advantage, and a midfield of Joao Mario, Joao Moutinho and Bernardo Silva supplying the bullets for Andre Silva and Cristiano Ronaldo is quite the prospect. They have scored 16 times in four qualifying games, with only Belgium (21) more prolific.
Player to watch – Robert Lewandowski (Poland)
Cristiano Ronaldo accounts for seven of Portugal’s 16 goals; he is the joint-highest scorer in European qualifying. Robert Lewandowski is the only man who can match his record.
Yet the striker’s importance to his country’s cause arguably outstrips that of Ronaldo’s to Portugal. Lewandowski has scored 70% of Poland’s total qualifying goals thus far. Their other three goals have been scored by Hull winger Kamil Grosicki, Leicester outcast Bartosz Kaputska and Armenia defender Hrayr Mkoyan.
The captain will rarely feel as much pressure as on Sunday, with the Group E leaders undertaking the daunting challenge of travelling to Montenegro in search of a result. Their hosts are second, three points behind, and waiting to capitalise on even the slightest slip. Lewandowski, the captain who has scored in every qualifying game so far, and who has 40 goals in 41 games overall this season, has to perform.
Team to watch – England
For a man whose nicknames range from ‘Mr Nice Guy’ to ‘Captain Sensible’, and who once revealed his favourite drink to be water, expectations of Gareth Southgate’s England tenure were never high.
Yet his first squad and game as permanent manager suggest that the 46-year-old is far more than just a safe pair of hands. From a change in tactics to the abandonment of the idea of a captain, Southgate has been a pleasant surprise.
Germany might have inflicted a first defeat under his tenure, but it already feels as though some progress has been made. An emphasis on tactical flexibility, the recognition of in-form players and the acknowledgement of past failures have all been obvious but necessary steps.
The manager has impressed; now it is the turn of the players. When England last faced Lithuania at Wembley, a young striker was handed his debut. He scored within two minutes of being introduced as a substitute. Harry Kane grasped his opportunity, and the current crop must do the same in his absence.
One of the criticisms of Roy Hodgson was that, while he oversaw a perfect qualifying campaign for Euro 2016, he did not experiment enough with his selections and tactics. Southgate’s insistence that England must be capable of playing “a number of systems” is a good start, but the players themselves must prove their ability to adapt and win simultaneously. The fans must prove their ability not to act like kn*bs.
Manager to watch – Gordon Strachan (Scotland)
“We must win that game. There is no getting away from that.”
As far as messages go, Gordon Strachan’s could not be more straightforward. Scotland host Slovenia on Sunday knowing that even a draw will not suffice for their qualification hopes, and their manager knows it.
“Whatever happens after that, we will look at that,” he added, but that will not be enough to appease many Scotland fans. His position has become almost untenable.
A 1-1 midweek draw with Canada, ranked 117th in the world, did little to improve his situation, and the only thing keeping Scotland off the bottom of Group F is pointless Malta. The minnows are one of only two sides Strachan has engineered competitive victories over since 2015 – the other is Gibraltar.
It feels like the final chapter for the 60-year-old. His methods are being questioned, his comments derided, and there is a general feeling that he favours certain under-performing players. Along with the fact that last competitive win at Hampden Park came in March 2015, that is a recipe for disaster.
One-on-one battle to watch – Stephen Ward v Gareth Bale
If Euro 2016 was Wales’ coming of age, the subsequent months have been a struggle to adjust to different responsibilities, a new-found maturity, and really weird growths that they should probably go and see a doctor about.
The semi-finalists stand on the precipice as they visit the Aviva Stadium on Friday. Chris Coleman’s side remain unbeaten in qualifying, yet sit third in their group behind leaders Ireland and second-placed Serbia, both also yet to taste defeat, but both with slightly healthier records.
It could have been so much worse. Gareth Bale is the undoubted jewel in this Welsh crown, having directly contributed to five of their eight goals so far. But an ankle injury in November threatened to sideline him for a vital clash against the Irish.
The tables have been turned, and not only in terms of Bale’s recovery. “Way back when Gareth got injured, everybody was talking about Wales possibly having one of their major players out of the team,” said Martin O’Neill in the build-up. “It turns out that we are the ones who are doing the suffering.”
The Ireland manager was alluding to the decimation of his squad, with 39 players originally called up for both this and next Tuesday’s friendly with Iceland. Ciaran Clark, Shane Duffy, Paul McShane, Harry Arter and Wes Hoolahan are among the many to be sidelined through injury, while James McCarthy, Shane Long and Jonny Hayes are all doubts.
Ireland’s defence is expected to suffer the most. A back four of Seamus Coleman, Duffy, Clark and Robbie Brady kept a clean sheet in the last fixture, a 1-0 win over Austria, in November. Coleman will be the only survivor, as John O’Shea and Richard Keogh partner one another at centre-half.
With Brady suspended, Burnley left-back Stephen Ward will be handed the honours of facing Bale. It is something that training each week against Ashley Barnes simply cannot prepare you for.
Football League game to watch – Doncaster v Plymouth
For those seeking an international respite, look no further than the top of League Two. By Sunday afternoon a title race will either be ended or extended.
Not only do Doncaster have home advantage, but they hold a six-point gap over their opponents. Plymouth, their closest challengers, know that only a victory can breathe life into their challenge.
Form favours the hosts. Doncaster have won four of their last five, and striker John Marquis is the league’s top goalscorer. Plymouth have won just three of their last nine games, and face an uphill battle.
Rovers boast the best home record in League Two this season, while no side has earned more points on the road than Argyle. The scene is set.
European game to watch – SPAL v Frosinone
Cristiano Del Grosso is a man who speaks in facts and facts alone. “I think that it will be a match between the two best teams in the league,” said the Italian in midweek. He will feature for Serie B leaders SPAL as they host second-placed Frosinone. And it will be a match between the two best teams in the league.
Where is Mike Dean this week?
Enjoying a weekend off, resting his weary legs and shunning the limelight, as per.
Ten live matches to watch
Germany U21 v England U21 (Friday, 19.00, BT Sport 2)
Republic of Ireland v Wales (Friday, 19.45, Sky Sports 1)
Lincoln City v Forest Green Rovers (Saturday, 12.15, BT Sport 1)
Sweden v Belarus (Saturday, 17.00, Sky Sports 1)
Portugal v Hungary (Saturday, 19.45, ITV4)
Belgium v Greece (Saturday, 19.45, Sky Sports 2)
Scunthorpe v Bradford (Sunday, 12.30, Sky Sports 1)
Doncaster v Plymouth (Sunday, 14.45, Sky Sports 1)
England v Lithuania (Sunday, 17.00, ITV)
Scotland v Slovenia (Sunday, 19.45, Sky Sports 1)
Writer to watch – Matt Stead