Europe’s finest footballers have broken away from their club duties and come together to compete on the international stage.
A run of friendlies and Nations League clashes await from Wednesday evening until October 14, while the process of discovering Euro 2020’s final four competitors continues apace as the continent plays catch-up because of the backlog caused by coronavirus.
Here are five key issues that await:
HAS IT GONE SOUTH FOR GARETH?
Serene progress, such an alien feeling, for England under Gareth Southgate has begun to take a downwards turn toward the dysfunctional norm associated with the international game’s usual great underachievers.
September 5’s, frankly abysmal, 1-0 victory against Iceland which featured hectic late penalty drama at both ends, was then followed by a much-changed side labouring to an instantly forgettable goalless draw at Denmark. This whole stint, however, was overshadowed by indiscretions from young guns Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood in Reykjavik which dominated newspaper front pages back home.
The last thing Southgate would have wanted coming into this month’s Nations League double header versus Belgium and the Danes was more off-field drama, particularly when frays related to the on-field action are beginning to show. Saturday’s impromptu 23rd birthday party for Tammy Abraham, however, attended by compatriots Jadon Sancho and Ben Chilwell broke coronavirus rules by the British government.
This has necessitated their absence for Thursday’s Wales friendly, plus strengthened views about a squad increasingly out of control and returning to the chaotic norm. A player meeting to emphasise the importance of discipline could not come soon enough after these high-profile lapses.
Discussion should be centred on whether Nick Pope can usurp error-strewn goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, how red-hot striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s debut call-up impacts equally in-form skipper Harry Kane and whether a return of a three-man defence was experimental or permanent? Avoidable distractions detract from a winning focus.
Talent abounds in the Three Lions dressing room. Can the genial figure who led them, so upliftingly, to World Cup 2018’s semi-finals continue to draw the best from them?
The next few days will be enlightening, for England and Southgate.
MAKE OR BREAK FOR SOME EURO 2020 DREAMS
The sinuous route to Euro 2021 is set to end for some countries and extend for others.
Thursday’s daunting tally of eight semi-finals will produce four final ties for next month’s deciding clashes. Contained within this grouping are some intriguing storylines.
Serie A-stalwart Goran Pandev has never got so close to an international tournament before – and, likely, never will again. The 37-year-old North Macedonia icon and current Genoa forward helped secure a first-ever third-place group finish, from either the Euros or World Cup, their reward being a clash versus attack-minded Kosovo.
Republic of Ireland, in contrast, are painfully familiar with play-off football – indeed, no team has featured more. The Boys in Green, though, find themselves at an interesting juncture ahead of their meeting with Slovakia.
Reductive – but often useful – tactics utilised by Giovanni Trapattoni, Martin O’Neill and Mick McCarthy have made way for Stephen Kenny’s expansive vision. But improved aesthetics during September’s first outings only secured a 1-1 draw with Bulgaria and 1-0 loss to Finland.
Does something have to give?
Tactical discord has also overtaken Scotland ahead of their meeting with Israel. Last month’s, disjointed 2-1 victory against a coronavirus-addled Czech Republic featured midfielder Scott McTominay looking uncomfortable at centre-back in a move described by manager Steve Clarke as utilising an “oval peg”, skipper Andy Robertson at left wing-back and Kieran Tierney as an unused substitute after previous awkward appearances at right-back and in the middle.
Clarke must get it right this week. Tight meetings against the Israelis in both Nations League campaigns have produced a win for either side, plus September’s 1-1 draw in Glasgow.
A competitor, however, which appeared to finally put things all together is Norway…
WILL NORWAY’S RISING STARS KEEP FIRING?
The electrifying buzz which surrounds Norway has not always been reflected in recent performances.
A run of three-successive 1-1 draws a year ago tempered expectations which surrounded an emerging Erling Braut Haaland, November’s slender 2-1 win against minnows Malta was alarming and so too September’s reversal to Austria by the same scoreline. The tenure of wizened Lars Lagerback – engineer of Iceland’s surge in the previous decade – has not been without its frustrations, despite a record of 16 wins, eight draws and seven defeats.
This picture, dramatically, shifted in the 5-1 slaughter of Northern Ireland which contained braces for Haaland and new RB Leipzig striker Alexander Sorloth.
Impressively, this result was obtained without the injured Martin Odegaard and benched Sander Berge.
Lagerback’s favoured 4-4-2 formation could receive another jolt in Thursday’s exacting semi-final with Serbia. A breakthrough period for box-office winger Jens Petter Hauge, 20, may see his switch to AC Milan from Bodo/Glimt followed by his international bow.
Efficacious use of an enviable squad is essential for tangible progress to be registered.
CAN SPAIN FIND A SAFE PAIR OF HANDS?
A rough spell for Spain’s embattled shot stoppers has shown no sign of abating.
David De Gea’s warm-up for La Roja duty was Manchester United’s 6-1 humiliation by Tottenham Hotspur, while cajoling coach Luis Enrique insists “it is not the end of the world” for Kepa Arrizabalaga now a string of errors for the game’s most-expensive goalkeeper has seen him dumped by Chelsea for Rennes’ Edouard Mendy.
It will be illuminating to see which direction Enrique moves in ahead of Wednesday’s glamour friendly with Portugal, plus Nations League outings against Switzerland and Ukraine.
De Gea started both of September’s matches, a 1-1 draw versus Germany and an Ansu Fati-inspired 4-0 dismantling of Ukraine. This ended a three-match alternating cycle between Kepa, De Gea and Pau Lopez.
Another element added to the mix is Unai Simon. Yet, has Athletic Bilbao’s appalling start to 2020/21 hurt his chances of making his international now this month?
De Gea is the man in possession. But no-one can be assured it’ll stay that way until Euro 2021.
EUROPE’S CLUB GAME ANXIOUSLY WATCHES ON
Consternation greeted UEFA’s call to put on a three-match international break at a point in which club sides are just getting up to speed for 2020/21.
Coronavirus’ shadow, of course, also looms large. Many countries in Europe have witnessed an increasing rate of infection as economies open up, leading to countermeasures.
Hundreds of players will now make multiple trips across the continent. A test event is under way, not just for international football but the looming starts for the lucrative Champions League and Europa league.
Mass transport is an unpredictable scenario, no matter how stringent medical protocols are. They are also only effective when adhered to, with England repeatedly guilty of ignorance.
Xherdan Shaqiri is absent for Switzerland and Leo Dubois has gone the same way for France after returning a positive test, while an unwell Timo Werner is also under the spotlight. There will be more scares.
Money starved clubs – and UEFA – need the Champions League to return. They will uneasily watch on, helpless about any negative outcomes with wide-ranging repercussions.
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