It may be another international break, but with World Cup qualifiers raging all over the globe, there’s still plenty at stake. Iain Macintosh runs through the good and the bad of the action as teams jostle for position on the road to Russia 2018.
Brazil haven’t quite qualified for the 2018 World Cup yet, but if they were to place a bulk order of “Teach Yourself Russian” books this week, they wouldn’t have to worry too much about keeping the receipt safe. Their away trip to second place Uruguay represented the greatest challenge of their remaining games. Could they do it in front of 60,000 hostile supporters? Yes. Yes, they could. And in style, too. A hat trick from Paulinho (remember him, Spurs fans?) and a goal from Neymar gave coach Tite his seventh successive qualification win since he took over last year, pushing Brazil seven points clear at the top and 10 clear of the play-off place. Mission (very nearly) accomplished.
Oh, hello, United States of America! You’ve decided to join us at last, have you? And what an entrance! Having lost to Mexico and Costa Rica at the end of 2016, it was clear that drastic change was required. Out went Jurgen Klinsmann and in came Bruce Arena. And by thunder, he has wasted no time in showing what he can do. Honduras were obliterated 6-0 with a storm of goals, which included a hat trick for Clint Dempsey. Even more encouraging was the display of young Christian Pulisic. The Americans are back. And about bloody time.
You need something a little special to unlock a deep-lying, packed defence. Fortunately for Mexico, Javier Hernandez is a lot special. His early goal broke Costa Rica’s resistance and changed the dynamic of what might have been a frustrating game. More than that, it brought him level with Jared Borghetti in the career top El Tri goal scorer stakes with 46. Having already beaten the United States away from home and with four home games remaining, Mexico have already done the hard bit. They should now qualify with ease.
Was there ever any doubt that Gianluigi Buffon would keep a clean sheet on his 1,000th appearance? In the end, Albania made it rather easier for him than he might have expected, forcing just a single save out of him during their straightforward 2-0 defeat. Of his 168 appearances for Italy, this is probably one of his least memorable, especially given his shameful failure to carry through with his prematch, tongue-firmly-in-cheek promise to emulate Zinedine Zidane and head-butt someone.
It had been three-and-a-half years since Jermain Defoe played for England, but he’s making up for lost time now. Back in the England squad and back in the starting lineup for Sunday’s clash with Lithuania, the 34-year-old Sunderland striker was on hand to smash home the all-important, nerve-soothing opening goal that set Gareth Southgate’s side on their way to Sunday’s 2-0 victory. This was not a classic by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s three more points to the total and another step closer to Russia. If he can stay in form, perhaps it’s not so ridiculous to suggest that Defoe might be joining Southgate on the plane.
Could the Netherlands be set to miss out on their second international tournament in a row? The Dutch are in disarray after a shocking 2-0 defeat to Bulgaria on Saturday night and manager Danny Blind has paid for it with his job. Defender Matthijs De Ligt, 17, endured a disastrous debut, but given that he had only played six times for his Ajax’s senior side, you have to wonder what Blind was thinking. His side, their pride still stinging after their failure to qualify for Euro 2016, are now two points behind Bulgaria and three points off second-place Sweden. And this could just be the start. Another failure to qualify will ravage their coefficient, plunging them into even harder groups in the future. Good luck to whoever takes over.
Some players struggle to do for their country what they do for their club, but Alexis Sanchez managed to replicate his Arsenal tantrums perfectly when Chile were narrowly beaten 1-0 by Argentina on Thursday and slid out of the automatic qualification places. Sanchez’s histrionics were reported to have angered his teammates, but they’d do well to focus on the more important issue of qualification instead. The reigning Copa America champions should easily beat Venezuela this week, but they have some tricky fixtures ahead in a tense campaign that culminates with an ominous looking trip to resurgent Brazil.
Only Neil Taylor will know what he was thinking when he lunged so late at Seamus Coleman in Wales’ 0-0 draw with Ireland Friday night. Did he deliberately set out to break the Everton defender’s leg? Almost certainly not. Very few players are actually malevolent. But did he want to let Coleman “know he was there?” Did he “lose his head” as the temperature rose? One of those answers seems likely. Another question: Is he “that kind of player?” Unfortunately, yes. Now he demonstrably is. And while you can feel some sympathy for Taylor and the backlash he faces, you should feel a little more for the man facing a significant stint on the sidelines.
Do you remember when Norway were a genuine force in world football? At one point in the mid-1990s, they were ranked second in the world. It all seems so long ago now. Last month, in a desperate effort to restore their fortunes, they appointed a Swede, Lars Lagerback — the same man who humbled England with Iceland in Nice. But on the evidence of Sunday’s 2-0 defeat to Northern Ireland, there’s a lot of work to be done yet.
Greece, whose last memorable moment in international football was getting beaten by the Faroe Islands, came so close to turning over a disappointing Belgium, only to end up winning more red cards than points with Saturday’s 1-1 draw. For this, the finger has to be pointed at Panagiotis Tachtsidis, the first to go, sent off for a stunningly dense late tackle on Toby Alderweireld. How daft do you have to be crash into someone on a yellow card in a winning position during a game of such importance? The second dismissal came deep into injury time so we’ll let that one go, but come on, Greece. Get it together, lads.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.