Saturday March 25, 2017
Portugal – Hungary
In an intriguing match, the reigning European champions come up against a team that they only managed to draw with last summer. No, not Iceland. Not Austria, either. Nope, not Poland. HUNGARY! Man, they really were quite horrid up until the final, weren’t they? No wonder they’re three points behind Switzerland in their group – and could drop below the visitors into third with a loss. What odds Ronaldo doesn’t give a toss about the national team anymore, now that his international tally is better than Messi’s?
Luxembourg – France
France somehow still have a strong, young squad despite omitting several seriously high calibre players like Anthony Martial, Paul Pogba, Morgan Schneiderlin – I’m sure it’s a coincidence that those are all current or recent Manchester United players – Karim Benzema, Yohan Cabaye, Geoffrey Kondogbia, Kingsley Coman, Alexandre Lacazette, Lucas Digne, Hatem Ben Arfa, Nabil Fekir, Steve Mandanda, Raphael Varane, Eliaquim Mangala, Samir Nasri, Mamadou Sakho… damn. This started as a joke, but now it’s just depressing. Why don’t we just hand them the next couple of World Cups, and save ourselves all the guilt over Russia and Qatar?
Prediction: 0-4 (Seriously though, how did they lose to a Ronaldo-less Portugal, at home?)
Sunday March 26, 2017
England – Lithuania
For the first time in living memory, England seems to be on the right track internationally. Despite recording their first loss in Germany since 1987 (yep, that’s true) on Wednesday, the Three Lions are looking up. In Gareth Southgate, they have a fairly talented and inventive manager to lead a young, potentially great side. Plus, he’s ENGLISH! That should please the ex-pro community that somehow dominates the football commentary market through a series of grunts and leg slapping. Most importantly, there doesn’t seem to be any sense of expectation in the media to weigh the players down. I’m sure that’ll last until next summer.
Tuesday March 28, 2017
Iran – China
In theory, this should be a walkover. A country struggling to survive under global sanctions and Trumpian threats of nuclear war, versus a superpower with money and resources to burn. The contrast becomes even sharper when you turn the focus towards their respective footballing industries. Not since Ali Daei have Iran made a big splash on the world stage, while the exponential growth of China’s domestic league has everyone in Europe heading for the panic stations. Nonetheless, the Guardian got it right when they called China ‘the England of Asia’. All this huffing and puffing – not to mention making Carlos Tevez richer than most nations – and the China are still second bottom of their qualifying group. The bottom team? Qatar.
South Korea – Syria
Speaking of punching above your weight, how exactly is Syria still in the running to qualify for the next World Cup? They don’t have a country and their people are struggling to survive, but they’ve still managed 8 points in 6 games. Meanwhile, India wasn’t even able to get to the current round of qualification. They finished dead last in their group in the last round – behind the mighty footballing superpower that is Guam. Why am I talking about India in a preview about Korea and Syria, you ask? Well, it’s definitely not because I’m a frustrated Indian fan. That would be totally unprofessional.
Brazil – Paraguay
Last summer, fans of schadenfreude got to see Chile pip Argentina to a second Copa America in as many years – leaving us quietly laughing that professional Aaron Ramsey-lookalike Lionel Messi just couldn’t get that international title. Meanwhile, Brazil managed to somehow become worse after the 2015 Copa America, as they went out in the group stage. Eventually Dunga – and who seriously thought he would do a good job – was sacked, and Tite was brought in. He’s managed to not just steady the ship, but has Brazil playing like the team we all remember. And by that, I mean the 1982 side that raced to glorious failure. After all, this is still a team with defenders like Thiago Silva.
Russia – Belgium
This is a genuinely difficult match to call. Who do you fancy? The incredibly average Russian side that hasn’t won a competitive match since the Tsar was overthrown, or an incredibly talented Belgian side led by an attack-minded mad man who will probably play with 9 attackers covered by a half-broken Vincent Kompany? Seriously though, timid predictions of Roberto Martinez’s lineup have Kevin De Bruyne playing defensive midfield in an ubër-attacking 3-5-2. Even Garth Crooks would never put him there.
Netherlands – Italy
Despite being hopelessly useless since Van Gaal left to save Old Trafford in 2014, Netherlands were seen as a team of the future when Van Persie initiated that victory over the reigning World and European champions. The Oranje were supposed to take over the reigns as the next perennial underachievers turned champions, but somehow contrived to miss out on an absurdly bloated European Championship last summer. Never mind, they’ll be well on course to fulfill their potential if players like Memphis, Wijnaldum, Strootman and…Blind (?) step up this week. Then again, their best player is still the perma-crocked, 33-year old Arjen Robben.
France – Spain
Here we are, this week’s titanic confrontation between the two heavy weights of European football. France’s immense potential versus Spain’s need to climb back to the top of the game. N’Golo Kante versus Thiago, Sergio Ramos versus Laurent Koscielny, Diego Costa versus Hugo Lloris, and, um, Olivier Giroud versus De Gea? Right, ignore that last one, this is still going to be a real signpost towards who should be crowned favourites for next summer’s tournament. Then again, England have beaten everyone from Spain to Brazil in mid-season friendlies recently and they’ve still been predictably horrid at tournaments. Almost like international friendlies mean nothing, and are only played to eke out every last penny from supporters.