Games to watch – Denmark v Republic of Ireland
Shay Given dived to his right; Gaizka Mendieta went straight down the centre. Spain advanced to the quarter-finals, while the Republic of Ireland, who were never even meant to reach the knock-out stages, were left wondering what might have been.
The 2002 World Cup evokes Irish memories of Roy Keane branding Mick McCarthy “a w***** as a man, and a w***** as a manager,” namesake Robbie equalising in the final minute against Germany, and an unattached Gary Breen earning himself a contract with Inter Milan with some wonderful performances, before failing his medical and eventually joining West Ham.
It is also the last time the Republic of Ireland qualified for a World Cup. They have reached the European Championships finals, but have found continental success far easier to come by than on the world stage. Martin O’Neill will be hoping to prevail where Brian Kerr and Giovanni Trapattoni failed.
The Boys in Green will not be envious of Sweden nor Greece, who were handed ties with Italy and Croatia respectively in the World Cup play-offs. But that is not to say that two dates with Denmark will be straightforward. Åge Hareide’s side have not lost since last November, a run dating back nine games, and including fixtures against Germany, Poland and Montenegro. In Christian Eriksen, they have one of the finest players in the world.
Ireland, by comparison, have lost three of their last eight games, and will be all too aware that up to ten players could miss the second leg at the Aviva Stadium next Tuesday. Darren Randolph, Cyrus Christie, Shane Duffy, Ciaran Clark, Stephen Ward, Glenn Whelan, Harry Arter, Aiden, James McClean and Daryl Murphy are all one booking away from a suspension, and so must watch their steps in the first leg on Saturday.
But, if history tells us anything, Ireland’s biggest obstacle will be themselves. This will be their fifth World Cup play-off, and they have won only one of the previous four. Defeats to Spain (1965), Belgium (1997) and, of course, France (2009) live long in the memory. O’Neill will hope that victory over Iran in 2001, and their subsequent joy at the following summer’s World Cup, will be a markedly better omen.
Player to watch – Sadio Mane
Jurgen Klopp, speaking at a charity event in Cape Town on Wednesday evening, only needed a one-word response. “Jurgen Klopp, can you please tell us how South Africa could stop Sadio Mane?” asked one journalist. “No,” came the reply.
After those attending broke into laughter, the Liverpool manager offered a little more insight. “I would tell you if I knew how, but I have no clue,” he added.
South Africa might have thought that they had escaped a meeting with Senegal’s stalwart, but Mane’s starring role in Liverpool’s 4-1 victory over West Ham last weekend proved otherwise. The 25-year-old assisted two goals in 77 minutes after, according to Klopp “just two sessions” of training.
It was in Senegal’s last game, a 2-0 victory over Cape Verde, when Mane was struck down by injury, but reports of a six-week lay-off were false. The forward returned within a month for his club, and will now look to guide his country to World Cup qualification.
Senegal top their qualifying group after four games, but need two points from their final two fixtures to secure a place in Russia next summer. And their opponent for both of those two matches will be South Africa, after their meeting last November was expunged due to a match-fixing referee.
South Africa are bottom of their group, but could conceivably finish top if they beat Senegal twice. So Mane, who has scored just one goal in qualifying thus far, will hope to shoulder the expectations of his country; South Africa will just hope they can cope.
Team to watch – England
“If you want to play a friendly you should choose another team than Germany. And Brazil is the second one, that’s really funny. All the journalists need to cool down and don’t expect too much.”
As is his wont, Klopp has certainly relished the opportunity to express himself during this international break. When he was not busy mocking South Africa’s chances of silencing Mane, he was mocking the English media with regards to their upcoming friendlies.
Wembley will play host to a rather different pride of lions on Friday and Tuesday, ‘pride’ being the inoperative word. Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson, Harry Winks and Fabian Delph have pulled out of Gareth Southgate’s England squad through injury, while Gary Cahill is unlikely to start the first friendly against Germany. “I’m hearing talk of club v country. It’s a nonsense. The players are injured and cannot play,” said the beleaguered manager earlier this week.
Their replacements have been derided, but those who question the logic behind calling up Joe Gomez, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Tammy Abraham and Jack Cork have also complained about the same faces being thrust into the same places for England down the years. This is an experiment with different ingredients, a response to the indifferent reaction over England’s recent indifferent performances.
At the very least, there is an interesting slant to the friendlies against Germany and Brazil, a reason to stay invested. Jack Butland Jordan Pickford is likely to deputise for Joe Hart, Loftus-Cheek and Abraham are expected to start, and these players have an incentive to perform against two of the best countries in world football. Take this chance, and other opportunities will present themselves further down the line.
“It’s not that they cannot win, of course, but you make it too big if they win, too big if they lose,” Klopp added in his message to the media, and he is absolutely right; both games will attract ridiculous reactions from either extreme. But for the first time in a long time, England are at least trying something different.
Manager to watch – Michael O’Neill
As difficult as the penalty award was to stomach, even the staunchest Northern Ireland supporter would struggle to pretend that defeat was undeserved. Switzerland were the dominant side in the first leg of their World Cup play-off on Thursday, having more than three times as many shots and almost two-thirds of the possession.
Yet Northern Ireland will travel to Bern on Sunday knowing that the deficit is only one goal. The Swiss may have commanded both ball and chances at Windsor Park, but they required a Ricardo Rodriguez penalty to breach a typically resolute defence.
The test for Michael O’Neill now is that Northern Ireland cannot afford to sit back for 90 minutes; they must take the initiative and lead the chase in the second leg at some point. But balance must be maintained, and they cannot rush out to catch the train while forgetting to lock the back door. It is a delicate situation.
Only once in Northern Ireland’s last 19 games have both sides scored. O’Neill must hope to extend that record on Sunday if the Green and White Army are to march into a fourth World Cup, but ensuring that swings in the visiting side’s favour will require impeccable management, a perfect performance and the sort of luck Switzerland benefitted from in the first leg.
One-on-one battle to watch – Anthony Martial v Chris Gunter
“He’s lost his place in the France squad,” said Gary Neville a fortnight ago. “There’s obviously something wrong with him. Mourinho and the French manager have turned off of him a little bit.”
It has taken a while, but Didier Deschamps has turned back on. Anthony Martial has returned to the France squad after a 12-month hiatus, his most recent international appearance coming last October.
After an imperious first season in England and a difficult last one, the Manchester United forward is in the midst of a campaign mired between disappointed and brilliant. He is locked in a losing battle with Marcus Rashford for one starting place, but has still scored or assisted 12 goals in 16 games in all competitions. His France return is just reward.
Les Bleus face Germany on Tuesday, but their first assignment comes at home to Wales on Friday. Chris Coleman’s side will hope their latest jaunt to Paris is as successful as their stay in the capital in the summer of 2016, but are again without Gareth Bale as they begin the road to recovery from World Cup qualification failure.
If Martial starts on Friday, he will at least get to meet Chris Gunter again. Considering their last battle in January, the Reading right-back is almost certainly relishing the reunion.
Poor Chris Gunter, he's being absolutely destroyed by Martial. 😂
— Dan Ravenscroft (@DanRavenscroft9) January 7, 2017
Football League game to watch – Doncaster Rovers v Rotherham United
Doncaster are 17th, but have won six of their last eight games, and have drawn only three times in their last 27 fixtures. Rotherham are 7th, but have won just one of their last six games, and have drawn only three times in their last 26 fixtures. It is the first South Yorkshire derby since January 2007.
But the most important point comes from Rotherham manager Paul Warne. “There are some players there that I know and I obviously don’t live too far away,” he said on Thursday, “so I need to win so I can go and get my milk.”
How’s that for a team talk?
African game to watch – Ivory Coast v Morocco
If only to watch Wilfried Zaha justify his decision to declare for the country of his birth as opposed to his adopted nation. The Crystal Palace winger was criticised in some quarters for switching allegiances from England to the Ivory Coast last November, but he has the chance to make himself a national hero 12 months later.
“I’m looking forward to the game because it’s an opportunity for me to prove my worth and show up in big games,” Zaha said earlier this week. “Big players step up in big games, and I want to be one of those players that my team can rely on.”
He cannot ask for much more in terms of a “big game”. Ivory Coast are second in their World Cup qualification group, one point behind leaders Morocco, who they host on Friday. A home victory puts the The Elephants into a fourth successive World Cup.
European games to watch – Sweden v Italy
Italy and Sweden have faced one another 22 times, but perhaps the most interesting chapter in their storied history came after a fixture in which only one of the countries were directly involved. It was after a 2-2 draw between Denmark and Sweden in the group stages of Euro 2004 that Gianluigi Buffon launched a rare tirade.
“Someone should be ashamed and it’s not us,” he said. “I’m very bitter, I didn’t believe this would happen with people who are proud of their spirit of fair play.”
The goalkeeper was part of the Italy side who exited Euro 2004 as a result of Denmark and Sweden’s stalemate. The Scandinavian countries knew that a 2-2 draw – and only a 2-2 draw – in the final group game would send both through at the expense of the Italians, and the unlikely became the reality as Italy were knocked out thanks to Mattias Jonson’s 88th-minute equaliser.
— Tancredi Palmeri (@tancredipalmeri) June 17, 2016
In Stockholm on Friday and Rome on Monday, Italy have the chance to avenge the perceived wrong. For Buffon, the only lasting member of the squad from 13 years ago, the wounds are still fresh.
Writer to watch – Matt Stead
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