10 things to watch out for during the international break
Club football will take a backseat over the next fortnight as the first international football of the year takes place across the world.
As well as the latest round of important qualification matches for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, there are also a number of attractive friendly games coming up.
Sportsmail take a look at 10 highlights of the upcoming round of international games.
1. The Three Lions face an old foe before their latest step on the road to Russia
A sense of deja-vu for England fans this week as they take on old rivals Germany almost a year to the day after they last played them.
On that occasion, excitement for the European Championship reached fever pitch after Roy Hodgson’s team miraculously came back from two goals down to win 3-2 in Berlin. And we all know what happened next.
This time, it is Gareth Southgate at the helm and the match will be played at the iconic Westfalenstadion in Dortmund on Wednesday night.
We may see debuts for the likes of Nathan Redmond and James Ward-Prowse, and a potential return for 34-year-old Jermain Defoe, in a possible experimental England team.
Of course, it will be far from easy against a star-studded Germany team that boasts one of the most ruthless forward lines in the international game.
After their visit to Dortmund, England return to Wembley on Sunday night when they aim to continue their unbeaten start to World Cup qualifying against Lithuania.
Germany vs England, Friendly, Wednesday 7.45pm; Live on ITV
England vs Lithuania, World Cup qualifier, Sunday 5pm; Live on ITV
2. Decisive World Cup qualifying summit in Dublin
As we approach the mid-way point on the road to Russia, there’s plenty to play for at the Aviva Stadium as the Republic of Ireland take on Wales under the Friday night lights.
Wales may have taken the neutrals’ vote as they stormed to the semi-finals at Euro 2016, but they have begun their World Cup qualifying campaign sluggishly, with three frustrating draws from their opening four matches.
By contrast, Ireland top qualifying Group D, having taken maximum points from three games and drawn another in Serbia. A win over Wales would see them take a firm grip on the group.
The visitors are boosted by news that talisman Gareth Bale is fit again following an ankle injury and the Real Madrid star is motivated as he closes in on Ian Rush’s 28-goal record for Wales.
While Wales take next week off, the Irish also have a home friendly against Iceland next Tuesday night.
Republic of Ireland vs Wales, World Cup qualifier, Friday 7.45pm; Live on Sky Sports 1 and S4C
Republic of Ireland vs Iceland, Friendly, Tuesday March 28; Live on Premier Sports
3. Last hope for Scotland’s World Cup hopes
It’s been the same old story for the Tartan Army in this qualifying campaign, with heavy away losses to England and Slovakia, and a dire home draw with Lithuania, leaving them off the pace in Group F.
Realistically, in order to stand any chance of reaching the play-offs, they need to beat Slovenia – currently in second place behind England – at Hampden Park on Sunday night.
First, Scotland warm up for that important occasion with an Easter Road friendly with Canada on Wednesday night, though their chances in both have been affected by injury withdrawals of Matt Phillips, James McArthur and Grant Hanley.
West Brom’s James Morrison is also a doubt for the first of their double-header, while manager Gordon Strachan is worried by the facts none of his striker have started many games lately.
It’ll be a very long remainder of the year for Scotland if they don’t take three points against Slovenia.
Scotland vs Canada, Friendly, Wednesday 7.45pm; Live on Sky Sports 1 and Sky Sports 5
Scotland vs Slovenia, World Cup Qualifier, Sunday 7.45pm; Live on Sky Sports 1 and Sky Sports 5
4. Northern Ireland looking to secure second spot
They enjoyed the party so much in France last summer, that Northern Ireland will be desperate to make it to Russia for another finals next year.
Being placed in the same qualifying group as Germany didn’t help matters, but Michael O’Neill’s team have every chance of taking second spot and entering the play-offs in November.
They’ve made a positive start, thrashing minnows Azerbaijan and San Marino, and drawing away to the Czech Republic, so far but Sunday’s home game with Norway is hugely important.
With Azerbaijan – whom they are locked together on seven points with – playing Germany, Northern Ireland can open up some breathing space with victory against a Norway side that isn’t as good as past vintages.
Northern Ireland vs Norway, World Cup Qualifier, Sunday 7.45pm; Live on Sky Sports 2
5. Mouth-watering friendly at the Stade de France
The fixture that really stands out from this latest set of international games is France taking on Spain in a Paris friendly next Tuesday night.
Both these powerhouses currently top their qualifying groups and will be hoping to lay down a marker ahead of the World Cup, where they will no doubt be considered among the favourites.
France will be without their midfield star Paul Pogba, who injured his hamstring in Manchester United’s Europa League win over Rostov last week, but such is their deep well of talent they should have ample cover.
For example, Didier Deschamps has called up Tiemoue Bakayoko – one of the Monaco players who tore Manchester City apart – in his place.
Also in the squad for the first time is his Monaco colleague Kylian Mbappe and Marseille forward Florian Thauvin. Plus, of course, the increasingly indispensable marathon man, N’Golo Kante of Chelsea.
Benjamin Mendy, also of Monaco, plus the Paris Saint-Germain young stars Presnel Kimpembe and Adrien Rabiot also feature.
In fact, given the new faces in this France side, it’s quite frightening to look at the team of players not selected, which includes Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema, Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette and Man United’s Anthony Martial.
Up against them are a Spain side that is as stellar as usual, from David de Gea in goal and Sergio Ramos at the back, to David Silva in midfield and Diego Costa up front.
The Premier League is well-represented, with Cesar Azpilicueta, Nacho Monreal, Ander Herrera and Pedro also picked by coach Julen Lopetegui.
Before this tasty match, however, both teams will expect to claim a maximum haul of points from World Cup qualifiers this weekend. Spain host Israel on Friday night and France travel to Luxembourg on Saturday.
Spain vs Israel, World Cup Qualifier, Friday 7.45pm; Live on Sky Sports 5 and Sky Sports Mix
Luxembourg vs France, World Cup Qualifier, Saturday 7.45pm; Live on Sky Sports Red Button
France vs Spain, Friendly, Tuesday March 28, 8pm
6. Meeting of traditional European powers in Amsterdam
On the same evening as France vs Spain, there’s another mouth-watering meeting between two European powers at the Amsterdam ArenA as Holland play Italy.
The Dutch, who missed out on Euro 2016, are determined that lightning doesn’t strike twice and they make the World Cup, but a tricky group that also contains France and Sweden hasn’t made this easy.
They’re second at present having lost at home to France earlier in the campaign but should take full points when they go to Bulgaria on Saturday to keep up the momentum.
It’s not exactly a Holland squad that bursts with household names and many of the players in Danny Blind’s squad have only a handful of caps and will be largely unfamiliar to the casual observer.
Among them are Davy Propper, Bart Ramselaar, Tonny Vilhena, Jens Toornstra, Wesley Hoedt and Steven Berghuis, but Blind is determined to overhaul the squad.
There is some balance to this, however, with stalwarts Arjen Robben – the captain – Daley Blind, Kevin Strootman and Georgino Wijnaldum present and correct.
Whether this blend can deliver them safely to the tournament in Russia remains to be seen.
Italy, too, have a challenging route to the final, having been paired with Spain, though they’re matching them stride for stride following a 1-1 draw earlier in the campaign.
Head coach Gian Piero Ventura has selected no fewer than eight forwards in his squad, with a very winnable home qualifier against Albania also on the agenda.
One of those initially picked but forced to withdraw through injury was Southampton’s in-form Manolo Gabbiadini, who suffered a groin strain against Tottenham on Sunday.
A glance at the squad also reveals how proudly Italian-based it is – there are just three out of 27 based abroad: Matteo Darmian at Manchester United, PSG’s Marco Verratti and Villarreal’s Nicola Sansone.
If both Holland and Italy commit to attack, it could prove to be a very entertaining friendly in Amsterdam.
Italy vs Albania, World Cup Qualifier, Friday 7.45pm; Live on Sky Sports Red Button
Bulgaria vs Holland, World Cup Qualifier, Saturday 7.45pm; Live on Sky Sports Red Button
Holland vs Italy, Friendly, Tuesday March 28
7. Work to do for Ronaldo and his Portuguese company
They may have recorded thumping 6-0 wins over both Andorra and the Faroe Islands – and beaten Latvia 4-1 – but free-scoring Portugal sit second in Group B and with work to do.
That’s because of their 2-0 loss to leaders Switzerland in Basle at the start of the campaign back in September.
As holders of the European Championship, it’s unthinkable that Portugal won’t be at the World Cup and they can afford no slip-ups when they host Hungary on Saturday night.
These two teams played out a thrilling 3-3 draw at Euro 2016, but Portugal – for whom Ronaldo will win a 137th cap – would settle for a nice and easy win in Lisbon.
From there, Portugal take on Sweden in an appetising friendly match in Funchal, Ronaldo’s home city, on Tuesday evening.
Portugal vs Hungary, World Cup Qualifier, Saturday 7.45pm; Live on ITV 4
Portugal vs Sweden, Friendly, Tuesday 7.45pm
8. More smooth sailing for the Belgians?
Belgium join Germany and Switzerland in having a 100 per cent record in their qualification campaign and they’ve been absolutely merciless so far.
A 3-0 win in Cyprus was followed by a 4-0 home win over Bosnia, a 6-0 spanking of Gibraltar and an 8-1 home thumping of Estonia.
Next in the crosshairs are Greece, who play in Brussels on Saturday night.
Roberto Martinez has plenty of firepower at his disposal and he isn’t afraid to use it – Belgium’s attacking options are: Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Dries Mertens, Kevin Mirallas, Christian Benteke, Divock Origi, Yannick Carasco and Michy Batshuayi.
And that’s not at all bad. Greek tragedy?
Belgium vs Greece, World Cup Qualifier, Saturday 7.45pm; Live on Sky Sports 2 and Sky Sports Mix
Russia vs Belgium, Friendly, Tuesday March 28 at 5pm
9. Argentina need to get their act together
It really wouldn’t be a World Cup without Argentina there, but they are running the risk of not making it following an inconsistent qualification campaign.
They currently sit in fifth in South America’s marathon group phase, on course for an inter-confederation play-off with someone from Oceania, but with Colombia and Paraguay breathing down their necks.
The World Cup without Lionel Messi? Unthinkable. With six matches remaining, their games with Chile in Buenos Aires on Thursday and Bolivia in La Paz on Tuesday take on enormous significance.
Argentina vs Chile, World Cup Qualifier, Thursday 11.30pm
Bolivia vs Argentina, World Cup Qualifier, Tuesday March 28 at 9pm
10. But Brazil are pretty much on the plane!
Brazil’s qualifying campaign has been much less turbulent and, with a four-point lead over Uruguay at the top of the CONMEBOL standings, they’re pretty much over the line.
A 2-0 defeat in Chile in their opening qualifier has so far been the only blip and they’ve efficiently moved up through the gears to take control of the group.
Their 3-0 win over old rivals Argentina in Belo Horizonte back in November has been the highlight and this time they head to their nearest challengers Uruguay before hosting Paraguay.
Win both of those and they can book the tickets for that very long flight over to Moscow.
Uruguay vs Brazil, World Cup Qualifier, Thursday 11pm
Brazil vs Paraguay, World Cup Qualifier, Wednesday March 29 at 1.45am
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