By Lewis Rollins
The International break is back this week in the form of the World Cup Qualifiers, all four home nations are in action and we are delving into preview each one of them.
Bale to the rescue for Wales?
LAST FIVE GAMES:
REP OF IRELAND – WWWDW
WALES – DDDWL
Starting the weekend of World Cup Qualifiers off for us is a fierce encounter between Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland and Chris Coleman’s Wales side at the Aviva Stadium on Friday night. Both sides had a summer to remember in France with inspired performances throughout the tournament and will be looking to build on this with qualification to Russia 2018. With four games gone in Group D it is Republic of Ireland who top the group with 10 points, avoiding defeat so far this campaign. Coleman and his men have failed to get off to the start most would have expected, only picking up one win and drawing the last three means they currently sit outside qualification territory in third.
Liverpool teenager Ben Woodburn has been included in the Wales squad, and the 17-year-old could win his first cap from the bench.
However of course Wales’ main dangerman remains Gareth Bale – and Coleman says the Real Madrid forward has made a full recovery from ankle surgery, Bale completed the full 90 minutes in Real’s 2-1 La Liga win at Athletic Bilbao on Saturday, this was only his sixth appearance since the end of November.
As simple as it looks for England?
LAST FIVE GAMES:
ENGLAND – DWDWW
LITHUANIA – DWDWD
England kick their 2017 off by welcoming Lithuania to Wembley, England boss Gareth Southgate named his side earlier in the week and while some familiar faces return, Southgate hands first call ups to Southampton duo Nathan Redmond and James Ward-Prowse.
Michael Keane of Burnley, West Ham United’s Michail Antonio as well as Southampton pair Redmond and Ward-Prowse will all be hopeful of winning their first competitive caps away in the international friendly against Lithuania at Wembley Stadium in the very important World Cup qualifier match.
England will be without Captain Wayne Rooney through injury, however an addition that shocked many England fans is the inclusion of in-form Sunderland striker Jermain Defoe, who made his debut for The Three Lions against Sweden in April 2004 – coincidentally this was Southgate’s final game in an England shirt. Despite the Sunderland striker’s incredible goal scoring ratio, Defoe is 34 years old now and has not featured for England since 2013.
Jake Livermore of West Brom has previously only picked up one senior international cap in a 2-1 victory against Italy in August 2012. Steve Hunt was the last outfield West Bromwich Albion player to appear for England back in 1984.
England, who are expected to breeze through qualification in Group F currently sit top of the group with 10 points from four games. Southgate’s men are yet to concede a goal and you’d fancy their chances for that streak to continue against Lithuanian opposition on Sunday afternoon.
The last time these two met was back in 2015, England came out victorious both times in a 4-0 and 0-3 win. Although Southgate will see this International period as a great chance to scope out some fresh new English talent, Lithuania have already upset one British side in Group F back in October when they travelled to Scotland and were unfortunate not to get all three points!
Is the dream over for Gordon Strachan and his side?
LAST FIVE GAMES
SCOTLAND – LLDWL
SLOVENIA – DWDWD
Scotland currently lie four points off second placed Slovenia in their qualification group, who they happen to be playing at the weekend.
Slovenia have managed to pick up an impressive eight points in four games, their highlight so far was another defensive master-class against England, just like we saw at EURO 2016. However, Scotland can use the Hampden Roar to take the scalp of the second placed side in Group F.
The in-form West Brom winger Matt Phillips and Crystal Palace’s James McArthur are both ruled out of Sunday’s game James Morrison will miss the midweek friendly with Canada but has not yet been ruled out for the Slovenia match. Slovenia also have injury issues going into the tie with Josip Ilicic almost certainly missing the tie with a stress fracture to his ankle (as reported by the Scottish Sun). Of the 24 men in manager Srecko Katanec’s squad, just nine completed a full 90 minutes for their clubs over the weekend.
Northern Ireland ready to secure second spot.
LAST FIVE GAMES
NORTHERN IRELAND – LWLWD
NORWAY – LWLLL
You can imagine being placed in the same qualifying group as Germany is not ideal, but Michael O’Neill’s team have every chance of taking second spot and entering the play-offs come November.
In the race to finish second behind world champions Germany, Northern Ireland are ahead of Azerbaijan but only on goal difference. However, they hold a comfortable two-point and four-point leads over Czech Republic and Norway respectively after four games played.
The Green and White army have certainly backed up their impressive display last summer in France with a positive start in Group C, thrashing minnows Azerbaijan and San Marino, and drawing away to the Czech Republic, but Sunday’s home game with Norway is hugely important. Skipper Steven Davis believes it could have a huge bearing on who finishes second behind Germany to clinch a play-off spot.
With Azerbaijan – whom they are locked together on seven points with – playing Germany, Northern Ireland would fancy their chances in opening up some breathing space with victory against a Norway side that is not as good as past.
The World Cup qualifiers kick off with Ireland vs Wales on Friday March 24th
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