With Premier League, Serie A, Bundesliga and La Liga having a break, attention turns to International Football. Need VPN for World Cup Qualifiers?
It’s the international break, which means no domestic football, but at least it’s World Cup qualifiers rather than nonsensical friendly matches. Ireland and “the home nations” all have games coming up over the next few days, and each of them face teams that most of us aren’t all that familiar with. We know our national teams. We probably spend too much time thinking about them, talking about them and arguing about them, but international football often throws up opponents who are something of a mystery.
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With that in mind we thought we’d have a look at the opponents facing Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland over the next week, starting with:
⚽ Ireland vs Luxembourg | Saturday 1945 GMT
Let’s start with the obvious, Luxembourg are not particularly good. They’re the number 98 ranked team in the world and in their last major qualification campaign, for Euro 2020 in 2021, the took only four points from their eight games, all of them from a win and a draw against Lithuania. They did have a decent showing in the Nations League winning four of their six games against Azerbaijan, Cyprus and Montenegro. The lost their last game to Qatar but that wasn’t as much of a surprise as it may initially seem.
They’re not a team with any household names in their ranks but they do have some talented players playing in top five leagues, such as the talented young midfielder Leandro Barreiro of Mainz. Their best player is probably Gerson Rodrigues, who plies his trade for Dynamo Kiev, an attacking midfielder who is the joint highest scorer in the squad with five goals in his 32 international appearances. Sharing that top scorer tag is veteran striker Stefano Bensi who has spent most of his career playing in his homeland, the last eight years of it with Fola Esch. Goals have always been hard to come by for Luxembourg, their all-time record scorer is Leon Mart who managed 16 between 1933 and 1946.
⚽ Albania vs England | Sunday 1700 GMT
Albania are ranked number 66 in the world right now, a massive fall from their peak of number 22 in 2015. They finished 4th of six teams in a difficult Euro 2020 in 2021 qualifying group, behind France, Turkey and Iceland but did amass 13 points after beating Moldova twice and Andorra and Iceland once apiece, as well as drawing at home with Andorra in a result they were very disappointed by. They gained promotion from the C Level of the Nations League to the B Level after topping a group containing Belarus, Lithuania and Kazakhstan and won their first World Cup qualifier by beating Andorra 1-0.
Albania do have some high quality players, particular in goal and in defense. Unfortunately for them, the rules of football negate the potential to field both of their very good goalkeepers, Thomas Strakosha of Lazio and Etrit Berisha of SPAL so they have to settle for using one. Berisha is the national team captain, though Strakosha is definitely the better keeper at this point in their careers. At the back they have Elseid Hysaj of Napoli who can offer quality at either fullback spot, Berat Djimsiti who many people will know after Atalanta’s exploits in the Champions League and the jewel in their crown Marash Kumbulla of Roma who is one of the best young defenders in Europe.
⚽ Israel vs Scotland | Sunday 1945 GMT
Fifteen years ago, Israel were a formidable team. In 2008 they reached their highest ever ranking of 15th and boasted some quality players like Yossi Benayoun and Tal Ben Haim. Those days are long gone and they now sit 87th in the rankings, having fallen as low as number 99 in 2018. Israel and Scotland have met three times in the last eight months, and the Israeli’s have caused Scotland problems. In two Nations League matches they took a draw away from Hampden Park, before winning on home soil in the return game. Scotland did win a Euro Qualifier Playoff between the two but needed penalties to do so, giving Israel the right to claim that Scotland have failed to beat them inside 90 minutes in any of those three games. Israel began their qualifying campaign with a 2-0 home defeat to Denmark.
Nir Bitton is probably the best known Israeli player to folks in Britain, given his eight year tenure at Celtic, but he is currently injured and unlikely to be fit for the game. Eran Zahavi of PSV Eindhoven is their top active goalscorer with 24 for his country, but the two stars of the team are his strike partner Munas Dabour who currently plays for Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga, and attacking midfielder Manor Solomon of Shakhtar Donetsk. Solomon is a particularly exciting player, who can operate in wide or central areas and uses his pace, dribbling ability and intelligent movement to constantly find space to create. A capable goalscorer in his own right, he will be tasked with creating the chances for Zahavi and Dabour so Scotland will need to pay close attention to him.
⚽ Wales vs Czech Republic | Tuesday 1945 GMT
Wales undoubtedly face the toughest task of all the “home nations” when they take on the Czech Republic. Though not of the calibre of the team of Pavel Nedved, Rosicky, Baros, Berger, Cech et al who rose to number 2 in the world on four different occasions between 1999 and 2006, the Czechs are still far better than their current ranking of number 42 suggests. The finished 2nd behind England in their qualifying group for the Euros, and handed England their only defeat along the way, and then topped their Nations League group ahead of Scotland to gain promotion from the B Level to the A Level.
Tomas Soucek is one of the stand-out players in the squad and he carried his brilliant form for West Ham this season into the first qualifier when he nabbed a hat-trick in the 6-2 win over Estonia. His West Ham team-mate Vladimir Coufal and Burnley’s Matej Vydra will also be well known to Premier League fans, while Bayer Leverkusen striker Patrick Schick and Sampdoria midfielder Jakub Jankto are two other two stand-out players alongside Soucek. It’s a shame that Czech Head Coach Jaroslav Silhy wasn’t a bit braver with his squad selection because he omitted two of the biggest young talents in the European football in the form of Sparta Prague duo Adam Karabec and Adam Hlozek, both of whom are likely to attract attention from clubs in the top five leagues this summer.
⚽ Northern Ireland vs Bulgaria | Wednesday 1945
Like the Czechs, it’s not that long ago since Bulgaria were considered one of the top teams in the World. The peaked at number 8 in the world rankings with Hristo Stoichkov as their talisman and remained a formidable team through the Dimitar Berbatov era. They have fallen off drastically since the former Tottenham and Manchester United star retired and currently sit ranked 68 in the rankings after a dreadful performance in the Euro qualifiers that saw them finish 4th behind England, Czech Republic and Kosovo. Their Nations League campaign was even worse, they were relegated after finishing bottom of their group that included Wales, Finland and Ireland. Wales will take great confidence from the fact that they beat Bulgaria home and away, with a Williams scoring in both games. Neco in the home game, Jonathan in the away. Both are named in the current Wales squad. Bulgaria lost their first qualifying game, 3-1, at home to Switzerland.
There’s a real lack of talent in the current Bulgaria squad, and an even bigger lack of goals. Their current top active goalscorers are a pair of midfielders, captain Georgi Kostadinov and his partner in the middle of the park Ivaylo Chochev, both of whom have three goals to their names. Kostadinov, who plays for Arsenal Tula in the Russian Premier League is probably the best player in the team, though defender Vasil Bozhikov has his moments. The more concerning thing for the Bulgarians is the distinct lack of young talent breaking through. There’s only four players in the squad who are aged 22 or below and none of them are capped yet.
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