International breaks aren’t always popular with football fans who miss the competitive nature of domestic and European club competition, but with Euro 2016 looming there is an extra edge to this particular round of friendlies. The days of multiple substitutions and non-competitive games dulled the appetite for the international stage, but certain matches – namely the one between Holland and France on Friday night – can’t fail to get the juices flowing.
In the history of international football both of these sides would naturally be expected to line up in the summer’s big tournament, but such has been the Netherlands fall from grace since their World Cup campaign in 2014, that they haven’t even qualified for the European Championship to be held in France this June. This gives them an opportunity to remind the football world that they are still a force to be reckoned with, but it is also a chance for the French to sharpen their teeth for competitive action after two years of friendlies in preparation for their own tournament.
In other matches on Friday night the Republic of Ireland host Switzerland with both teams making their own preparations for the summer of football, while we’re also looking at another qualifier in Slovakia as they host Latvia.
Holland v France
It’s been a remarkable turnaround for the Netherlands side that were within a penalty shoot-out of a World Cup final less than two years ago. A terrible start to the European qualifying campaign under now-Chelsea boss Guus Hiddink saw him replaced by assistant Danny Blind, but a run of three defeats in their last four qualifiers saw them finish fourth in the group without even a play-off place. What started as a salvage operation for Blind has become a much more long-term rebuilding process, and the Dutch coach has omitted experienced players Robin van Persie, Nigel de Jong and Rafael van der Vaart, replacing them with promising youngsters as he looks to build a new side.
It’s a surprising statistic that the current squad of 23 includes just 11 players with 10 or more caps to their name, and it also features three players who could make international debuts here. Wesley Sneijder has likened the Dutch situation to that of Belgium who invested heavily in youth to develop the team they now possess, but it is questionable whether fixtures against teams of the quality of France are the place to build a new team.
The French meanwhile suffered a surprise 2-0 defeat to England in November which brought to an end their run of five consecutive wins. They’d beaten some good teams in that run including Germany and Portugal, and this is a good test for Didier Deschamps squad. Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema is still unavailable after his ban for his role in the extortion case involving team-mate Valbuena, but Deschamps has been introducing some exciting young talent such as Manchester United’s Martial and Bayern’s Coman. With the likes of Lloris, Pogba and Evra they have top quality and experience, and their strength is demonstrated by the fact that one of the Premier League’s top performers this season, Dimitri Payet, has only just earned a recall to the squad for this week’s friendlies.
France beat Holland 2-0 the last time they played in 2014, and it would be easy to argue that they have improved since then while the Dutch have declined. Holland have also lost their last three home games – to Iceland, USA and Czech Republic – and France are more than capable of inflicting another defeat.
Republic of Ireland v Switzerland
Republic of Ireland also stand out on the night at +193 with Marathonbet to beat Switzerland in Dublin.
Irish manager Martin O’Neill has moulded together a squad with the typical spirit associated with his teams, and no shortage of quality too. They qualified for the Euros via the play-off route after finishing third in a very tough group behind Germany and Poland, beating Bosnia over two legs to claim their place at the showpiece in the summer.
Jonathan Walters is missing from the side although he is expected to be back in time for Tuesday’s match against Slovakia, but veteran striker Robbie Keane is available for both games. Ireland’s only defeat in the last ten games was the 2-1 reverse in Poland during qualification, but they haven’t been beaten at home since May 2014 and have won the last three in front of their faithful fans – over Georgia, Germany and Bosnia – without conceding a single goal.
The Swiss made it through to the knockout stages of the 2014 World Cup, going out to a last-ditch Di Maria goal in extra-time against Argentina. They qualified for France 2016 in 2nd place behind England, although they were comfortably beaten 2-0 by the Three Lions in both matches with the group winner. They’ve won recently in Austria and Estonia, but have been beaten away by both England and Slovakia in recent away games.
Ireland look a little too big at the odds to complete a fourth consecutive home victory, and are worth backing to start their preparations in style.
Slovakia v Latvia
Finally Slovakia look like a standing dish when they take on Latvia, at -250 with Coral
Slovakia qualified for the Euros in 2nd place behind Spain in Group C, and should be far too strong for Latvia. They’ve won 9 of their last 11 home internationals and will be gearing up for a rare appearance at a major tournament.
Latvia meanwhile have failed to win in 12 international fixtures home and away, and their last away victory came five years ago in 2011. While they have battled to creditable draws in several recent internationals, there will only be one team doing the attacking here and Slovakia are a confident selection.
France to beat Holland
Friday 25th March, 19:45 GMT
Republic of Ireland to beat Switzerland
Friday 25th March, 19:45 GMT
Slovakia to beat Latvia
Friday 25th March, 19:30 GMT