2018 World Cup Qualification picks back up during the October international break. Miguel Delaney looks ahead to the action.
New elements to an old rivalry in Turin, Italy v Spain (Thursday)
It would have been the game of the week anyway, but this meeting of international football royalty in Turin is all the richer because of the sub-plots to this particular fixture. The Spanish players are looking to avenge their Euro 2016 last-16 defeat to Italy, but even that motivation is complicated by the fact that both countries having changed managers. On that Monday in the Stade de France, Antonio Conte’s rampant Italy made Spain look spent and stale, but the wonder now is whether that has turned.
Conte’s replacement Giampiero Ventura hasn’t yet had the same effect with the side, after two laboured performances in a 3-1 defeat to France and 3-1 win over Israel. This week Ventura praised how Julen Lopetegui had restored “adrenaline and conviction” to Spain since succeeding Vicente del Bosque. The deposed European champions did only beat Luxembourg in the first competitive game of the new regime, but it was impossible not to notice more movement to the side and a greater intensity. There was just a different verve about them.
Italy’s attempts to combat that will be made more difficult by the fact Giorgio Chiellini is suspended, after getting sent off in the win over Israel. It is set up for a cracking game and one that could go a long way to deciding top spot in an otherwise forgiving group.
The circus keeps moving, England v Malta (Saturday)
It is the most routine of fixtures for England – but amidst the least routine of weeks. What should be an easy win over minnows Malta has instead become about something else entirely, as Gareth Southgate temporarily takes over the squad just a week and a half after Sam Allardyce’s unceremonious dismissal.
The interim coach and his players were naturally asked about all of the events in the build-up to the game, with all of them – from Wayne Rooney to Gary Cahill to Southgate himself – trying to evade it, but the reality is that this is likely to colour and cloud the rest of the campaign. It will go down in history as the group that saw swiftly saw the end of the shortest and most controversial English managerial regime in history. It is probably just as well that England have such a forgiving first match straight after Allardyce’s departure. Imagine, for example, had this been a game against group rivals Scotland?
As it is, there is still so much to look out for. They range from football issues like whether Southgate will allow Rooney the same influence Allardyce was willing to despite getting dropped at club level, and off-field issues like how much of Allardyce has been erased from the occasion. This was supposed to be his big welcome, with the FA having to cancel all sort of plans. It has instead become one big circus.
Can the French stride forward by avoiding history’s missteps, France v Bulgaria (Friday)
It is one of the most infamous fixtures in French football history, and even if this rematch can’t possibly have the same impact, it can begin to make an already awkward group much tougher for France. Back in 1993, they were beaten 2-1 at home by Bulgaria in the last minute of the last game of the qualification group, causing them to miss out on the 1994 World Cup in the United States.
Now, the team of Didier Deschamps – who played in that game – have started this campaign poorly, drawing 0-0 in Belarus in what seemed to be a hangover from their Euro 2016 defeat to Portugal. They could do with Antoine Griezmann continuing his club form, and getting back to scoring for his country here. They could also benefit from finding a formation that works for them. Otherwise, Bulgaria could once more make things complicated for them. That is the last thing needed in a group that already includes the Netherlands and Sweden. The French go to Amsterdam after this match.
Acid test in Quito, Ecuador v Chile (Thursday)
A crunch game for stumbling Chile – but perhaps more so for their hosts. Ecuador have been one of the most enigmatic sides in the South American qualifiers so far, winning their first four matches (including 2-0 away at Argentina) and losing their past three. Los Amarillos currently sit in fifth spot which would bring a qualification play-off but have been trending down of late. We will be told a lot as to whether they can stay there, however, by how they do in Thursday’s match at home against the reigning two-time continental champions.
Chile have also struggled a bit of late, though, having lost to Argentina and Uruguay and only managing a draw at home to Bolivia. With the talent they have at their disposal, this does feel like the kind of game where things could be set straight; where Chile get the win they need to alter the course of their campaign. They need to. A World Cup without Juan Antonio Pizzi’s team is almost unimaginable at this point. Ecuador, however, need to imagine something bigger. They desperately need to make another statement if they hope to hold onto their position in a very jumbled CONMEBOL qualifying table.
The revelations against the disappointments, Austria v Wales (Thursday)
After a Euro 2016 campaign as memorable as Wales’ run to the semi-final, it’s easy to forget that Austria led by David Alaba were a talented team tipped to make a similar run — only to calamitously finish bottom of their group. Marcel Koller’s side will be looking to rectify that and fulfil their talent by at least qualifying for Russia, while Wales will be looking to build on the history made – and bright future suggested – at Euro 2016.
Those aren’t the only elements heightening the stakes of this game. There is also the fact that this is probably the most congested and complicated of all the qualification groups. There is no traditional heavyweight involved but Wales, Austria, Ireland and Serbia would all see themselves as having an equal chance of qualifying, and there isn’t even an outright minnow either. Georgia and Moldova are much more awkward opponents than sides like Gibraltar and San Marino. There is almost no breathing space in this group, and that could make for a breathless match. This may not be game of the week, but it could end up the best match of the week.
Another giant leap, Kosovo v Croatia (Thursday)
Having already made history by claiming their first ever competitive point in their first match away to Finland, Kosovo will look to do something even more momentous. They will play their first ever home match, taking on neighbours Croatia. Granted, that will take place in Shkoder, Albania because the stadium in the Kosovan capital of Pristina is not yet up to the required standards. The change in venue won’t negate the sense of occasion though — even if their eventual arrival home will be another huge event. Having put together such a creditable display in the 1-1 draw with Finland, too, it isn’t beyond them to claim another huge result against Croatia. The visiting side are without both Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. Kosovo, then, are not without hope. This, however, is already a side full of optimism.
Miguel Delaney covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MiguelDelaney.