The World Cup qualifiers in Europe were done and dusted over the weekend, but the international break is not quite finished just yet. Tuesday night brings a host of friendly games including some special fixtures such as France v Spain and Netherlands v Italy.
Both French and Spanish top their qualifying groups with near perfect records so far. France beat Luxembourg 3-1 over the weekend to rack up their fourth win in five matches, and they sit comfortably top of group A three points clear of next-best Sweden. It’s a bit tighter for Spain who lead Italy only on goal difference at the top of group G, thanks largely to an 8-0 thrashing of Liechtenstein. David Silva and Diego Costa were on target as the Spanish recorded a routine 4-1 win over Israel on Friday night, and they are justified favourites to reach Russia 2018 having drawn away in Italy with the home fixture to come.
There are some other great games to get stuck into as well. Netherlands host Italy in an international friendly, but they will do so with a temporary manager after sacking Danny Blind over the weekend. The aptly-named Fred Grim will take charge of a rather grim-looking qualification campaign, after the Dutch lost 2-0 to Bulgaria – prompting Blind’s dismissal. Netherlands are fourth in group A, six points adrift of leaders France, and have won just two of five qualification games so far.
Ireland’s 0-0 draw with Wales was marred by an horrific injury to Everton full-back Seamus Coleman, which overshadowed what should have been a great international. The qualification picture hasn’t changed greatly for either side, but the stalemate played into the hands of group rivals Serbia. They leap-frogged Ireland to lead group D on goal difference, with Wales four points behind the pair. The Irish host Iceland in a friendly on Tuesday evening, and look good value to record a home win in a match that they will approach with far less pragmatism.
France v Spain
None of the last four meetings from 2012-2014 between the sides have exceeded that goal line, but three of those were in competitive matches. Those games were also during the period that Spain were at their defensive best, before the halo well and truly slipped at the 2014 World Cup.
The more pertinent statistics may be found in friendlies rather than competitive matches. In France’s last six international friendlies, five have had three or more goals. Those include a 3-1 win over Italy, a 3-2 thriller against Netherlands, and a 3-0 thumping of Scotland. Three of Spain’s last five international friendlies have also seen more than 2.5 goals, including a 2-2 draw with England, a 6-1 thrashing of South Korea, and a 3-1 win against Bosnia.
There’s no pressure on this game, but it will be an opportunity for two of Europe’s top sides to earn bragging rights, and it may turn into a much more open game than the bookmakers are expecting.
Ireland v Iceland
That description may be somewhat unfair on the Icelandic side that dumped England out of the Euro’s, but they haven’t suddenly become world-beaters either. In World Cup qualification they held out for a 1-1 draw in Ukraine in the opening fixture, but were grateful for a missed second half penalty by their hosts. They’ve recorded home victories over Turkey and Finland, but were beaten 2-0 away in Croatia. 2nd in group I, they have decent shout of qualifying for Russia 2018.
Ireland have won three and drawn two of their qualification games, and although they piled the pressure on ten-man Wales towards the end of Friday night’s game, they might have paid the price for a fairly defensive early display. The shackles should be off in this match after a disciplined performance to secure a point, and one suspects they will dominate the ball against an Iceland side that tends to try and sit back and soak up pressure.
Netherlands v Italy
The Dutch are the archetypal inconsistent football team. They’ve beaten England, Poland, Wales and Austria in friendlies over the last year, but can contrive to lose to the likes of Greece and Bulgaria. Saturday’s 2-0 reverse to the latter cost Danny Blind his job, but would it surprise if the players turned up and won this game?
Italy are hardly renowned for their record in friendlies, generally saving their best football for tournaments and qualifying campaigns, but the nature of this match might suit them. Netherlands are bound to attack as it’s their only style of play and they will be looking for a reaction to the weekend’s disappointing result. With no pressure on the outcome, and if Grim has pretensions of getting the job on a permanent basis, one suspects the Dutch will be sent out to go and win the game.
The Italians showed at Euro 2016 that they like to sit back and hit sides on the break, and the cavalier dutch attitude should leave plenty of spaces to exploit.
France v Spain – Over 2.5 Goals
Tuesday 28th March, 20:00 GMT
Ireland to beat Iceland
Tuesday 28th March, 19:45 GMT
Netherlands v Italy – Over 2.5 Goals
Tuesday 28th March, 19:45 GMT