Wales & Bale’s Dates With Destiny
After overcoming a pitch that seemed more suited to an under-11s training session and some X-rated challenges which those same under-11s would have been prohibited from watching after the watershed, Wales emerged from Andorra with a 2-1 victory last month thanks to a brace from Gareth Bale.
Much was made of their reliance on the Real Madrid man back then, but that dependence will be even more pronounced in the Cardiff double-header against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Cyprus due to the absences of the injured Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen.
Four points from six is surely the minimum requirement, and Bale will be tasked with earning them as his quest to drag his nation to a major tournament continues.
Wales are 3.40 to beat Bosnia-Herzegovina
England Forwards Can Play Their Way Into Form
England’s history is littered with players who have used opposition such as San Marino to improve their international goalscoring records. Both Ian Wright and David Platt scored four in a game against them once, whilst Jermain Defoe scored twice and Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge were on the mark when the pair last met in March last year, an 8-0 win.
As the Sammarinese – who’ve scored just three goals in six years – come to Wembley this time around, Rooney will doubtless see this as a chance to get closer to England's all-time scoring record and to play himself into some form following disappointing displays and a red card for Manchester United recently, whilst in Sturridge’s absence Danny Welbeck could make another convincing case for his international place following his heroics in Switzerland. Rickie Lambert, struggling for rhythm at Liverpool, will be desperate for a start too, with goals doubtless raising confidence ahead of a trip to Estonia.
Diego Costa’s Fitness
Currently doing a great impression of the most in-shape injured player in Premier League history, Diego Costa heads for Spain duty with Jose Mourinho’s words ringing in both his and Vicente Del Bosque’s ears.
After swatting aside Macedonia 5-1 in their opening game perhaps Spain won’t need to use the Brazil-born forward for all 180 minutes of their trips to Slovakia and Luxembourg, but it is worth remembering that despite his Chelsea form Costa hasn’t yet scored for Spain in five appearances, something he’ll be eager to put right.
Do Sweden Dare Pick Zlatan?
Sweden coach Erik Hamren declared that he “doesn’t like injuries” when he picked Zlatan Ibrahimovic in his squad for home games against Russia and Liechtenstein, but if he was to play then it’s safe to say that Paris Saint-Germain won’t like him.
PSG’s talisman missed Sunday’s draw with Monaco and the recent Champions League win over Barcelona with a heel problem, but after an opening draw with Austria Hamren will be particularly desperate to beat Russia in Solna, and those needs could see him select his skipper against his club’s wishes.
Sweden are 2.50 to beat Russia
Prepare For Dutch Dynamite
The last gasp 2-1 defeat in Prague was hardly the ideal competitive start to Guus Hiddink’s second spell in charge of the Netherlands, especially as it came off the back of a friendly defeat in Italy in which they conceded two goals in the opening 10 minutes.
Kazakhstan’s visit to Amsterdam should be the perfect chance to iron out these flaws, with an impressive display needed in order to boost confidence ahead of a tricky trip to a confident Iceland next week.
READ: Gareth Bale Can Lead Wales Out Of The Shadows And Into Euro 2016
READ: Why Wayne Rooney Should Never Be Captain Of Anything
Italy’s Striking Problem
With five goals for his country, Fiorentina’s Alberto Aquilani is the top international scorer in the Italy squad for the matches against Azerbaijan and Malta, a group which features Southampton’s in-form forward Graziano Pelle for the first time.
It doesn’t, however, include the out-of-favour Mario Balotelli, and so the matches represent a perfect chance for any forward to try and nail down a problem position in Antonio Conte’s side. Sassuolo’s Simone Zaza (pictured) scored in the win in Norway last time out but has done nothing since, whilst Ciro Immobile has been underwhelming in the Bundesliga since joining Borussia Dortmund.
Somewhere on Merseyside, Balotelli could be watching events closely.
Gibraltar Go Again
The 7-0 loss to Poland in Faro wasn’t the way that Gibraltar wanted to mark their first ever competitive international fixture, and whilst take two in Dublin on Saturday could result in even more short-term pain, at least the clash with Georgia next week could offer some hope for encouragement.
With a daunting trip to Germany on the horizon next month, any crumb of comfort will be snapped up.
Scotland Aim For Points Not Pride
Scotland won plenty of fans for their approach and performance in the 2-1 loss to world champions Germany in Dortmund last month, but ultimately they didn’t win anything else.
With Hampden Park still recovering from hosting the Commonwealth Games, Ibrox will be the setting for a much more winnable clash with Georgia this time around, with three points then providing the perfect springboard into a fascinating-looking trip to Warsaw next week.
Scotland are 1.70 to beat Georgia
Poland Showdown Could Bring The Best Out Of Germany
The Germans were below-par in that Scotland win, perhaps suffering from post-World Cup winning fatigue.
Maybe, then, this week’s trip to what is likely to be a hostile Warsaw to play Poland – with all of its historical connotations – is exactly what Joachim Low’s side could do with as they seek to hit top gear. After all, the last time they played another country on the opposition’s home turf was the World Cup semi-final in Brazil, and that didn’t turn out too badly.
Ronaldo’s Return To Inspire Portugal
Missing the injured Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal slipped to an embarrassing 1-0 defeat at home to Albania last time out, a result which would have been more damaging were they not in the smaller and easier Group I.
After their contractually-obliged friendly with France comes a tricky trip to Copenhagen to face Denmark next week when Ronaldo – the scorer of a staggering 13 goals in his last six Real Madrid games – will be looked to to inspire on his first competitive appearance for his country since their World Cup group stage exit, with another defeat this early unthinkable.
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