Fans of domestic European football rarely look forward to international breaks as the cut and thrust of top-flight club action is replaced by national sides going through the motions and fulfilling fixture requirements. However, with the Russia World Cup less than three months away, this week’s international friendlies take on a new meaning as coaches try to whittle down their final squads.
England’s Gareth Southgate has a number of issues to contend with in shaping a largely inexperienced group of players, and his Three Lions travel to the Netherlands on Friday, before returning to Wembley to host Italy next Tuesday. The Dutch failed to qualify for the second major tournament in a row when they missed out on a place at Russia 2018, but they will be keen to prove that they can still compete with the top-tier sides in Europe by beating England on home soil.
In another compelling game on Friday night, two of the favourites to lift the trophy go head-to-head as Germany take on Spain. Although this game will not be as fiercely contested as a competitive match, there is a psychological edge to be gained by beating a close rival in the run-up to the tournament and neither side will want to come away as a loser here.
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England have battled resolutely to 0-0 draws in their last two international friendlies versus Germany and Brazil, with Southgate’s young sides acquitting themselves well on both occasions. This particular game may be a different matter, however, as the sides are more evenly-balanced and the current Dutch side is not renowned for low-scoring games.
The Netherlands have actually been on quite a roll in international football of late, winning their last five matches in a row. The first three of those were World Cup qualifiers, but the damage had already been done by that point. The Dutch missed out on the summer showpiece finishing 3rd on group A behind France and Sweden. they beat the Swedes 2-0 in the final qualifying game but would have needed a huge victory to squeeze past the Scandinavians on goal difference – a feat they were unable to achieve. Romania and Scotland have both been put to the sword in recent friendlies as the Netherlands look to build a side for Euro 2020 qualification under former Everton boss Ronald Koeman. Star player Arjen Robben has retired from international football, and the roster of players features a sprinkling of quality and a smattering of youth and inexperience. Former and current liverpool players, Ryan Babel (46) and Georginio Wijnaldum (45), are the two most-capped players in the current squad due to face England and Portugal.
A similar claim could be made about the English side, whose most experienced player, goalkeeper Joe Hart (75), is not even assured of a starting berth. Beyond him, England have a group of players on 30+ caps, including Kyle Walker, Jordan Henderson, and Raheem Sterling. Prior to the two 0-0 draws with Germany and Brazil, the Three Lions had won four World Cup qualifiers in a row and secured a comfortable passage to Russia by finishing top of group F with 26 points from a possible 30. They kept clean sheets against the likes of Lithuania and Slovenia in the last two of those qualifiers, but a better comparison with this game are the two friendlies played against France and Spain, which ended 2-3 and 2-2 respectively.
The absence of Harry Kane give the three strikers in the squad – Vardy, Welbeck and Rashford – a chance to push their claims for a place in the squad this summer, while Southgate also has plenty of issues to resolve at the back. John Stones is the most experienced centre-back in the squad and he will be joined by Maguire, Mawson or Gomez. While showing promise, none of those has much experience on the international stage (5 caps between them), and it is yet to be seen if Southgate opts for the back three which served so well against Brazil.
Nonetheless, with two evenly-matched sides, both lacking experience, and both testing new formations or line-ups, both teams to score looks a sensible bet.
These two are the most successful sides in Europe over recent decades and this is a real clash of the Titans ahead of the Russia World Cup. Neither side has tasted defeat since exiting Euro 2016, and both sauntered through qualification for Russia. There is precious little to choose between them and both are worthy of their places at the head of the betting markets to lift the trophy in July.
The last three meetings have all been won by a single goal, with Spain claiming two wins to Germany’s one. However, the last of those was in 2014 so it will be interesting to see how the sides fare against one another on Friday night. The Germans have home advantage but Spain have beaten Belgium and France in away friendlies over the last two years – proving their credentials.
This is the type of game where the damage of a defeat would outweigh any positives from a victory. Neither will want to give their opposition a psychological edge going into the World Cup, and both managers may keep their cards close to their chest in terms of team selection, formation, and tactics. It would be no surprise to see a tame match played out here as neither side goes into top gear and several fringe players get a run out. The draw, therefore, represents decent value as two heavyweights spar in preparation for the ‘big fight’.
Another game that catches the eye for a both teams to score bet is the tie between Poland and Nigeria. Both sides will compete in the World Cup and both are likely to be underestimated.
Poland kept clean sheets in their last two friendlies versus Uruguay and Mexico, but prior to that had only managed two shutouts in eleven games since Euro 2106. They have also regularly hit goals, with Robert Lewandowski breaking the record for goals in European qualification.
Nigeria qualified as clear group winners in their African section, and as their 4-2 friendly win over Argentina in November demonstrated, they are not going to Russia simply to make up the numbers. These are two sides who are both capable of scoring goals and equally capable of conceding them, so both teams to score is the obvious bet.
Netherlands v England – Both teams to score
Friday 23rd March, 19:45 GMT
Germany and Spain to draw
Friday 23rd March, 19:45 GMT
Poland v Nigeria – Both teams to score
Friday 23rd March, 19:45 GMT