Big-name friendlies bring World Cup flavour
Five high-profile match-ups, all of which could feature at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ in less than 500 days' time, are among the 30-odd international friendlies on the bill this week. Old European rivalries resume, with France facing Germany and the Netherlands taking on Italy. And there are three Europe-versus-South America clashes, with England playing Brazil, Sweden tackling Argentina and Spain facing off against Uruguay.
The big game
England-Brazil, Wembley, London
Luiz Felipe Scolari began his second spell in charge of Brazil by handing a surprise recall to Ronaldinho, 32, who has found a new lease of life at Atletico Mineiro. Scolari, who was reappointed in November 2012 having previously led Brazil to their last FIFA World Cup triumph at Korea/Japan 2002, has also brought experienced goalkeeper Julio Cesar back into the fold. The 33-year-old, along with Ronaldinho, had fallen out of favour with previous coach Mano Menezes. But he has been in fine form for Queens Park Rangers and will be hoping to add to his 64 international caps.
Scolari is spoilt for choice in attack, with star man Neymar (Santos), Fred (Fluminense), Hulk (Zenit Saint Petersburg), Lucas Moura (Paris Saint-Germain) and Luis Fabiano (Sao Paulo) all vying for starting roles. There is no place, however, for Kaka, who has struggled at Real Madrid and found playing opportunities limited. New coach Scolari will be all too aware of the limited time at his disposal, and will be keen to restore some sparkle to his side as quickly as possible.
England coach Roy Hodgson, meanwhile, has named an experienced squad, with left-back Ashley Cole expected to win his 100th cap. Hodgson will have to make do, however, without Jermain Defoe, Michael Carrick and Daniel Sturridge, all of whom are injured.
France coach Didier Deschamps has made Hugo Lloris, Mamadou Sakho, Blaise Matuidi and Karim Benzema the backbone of his team since taking charge in July 2012, and is slowly but surely fine-tuning his squad. The latest addition is Rennes forward Romain Alessandrini, 23, who this time last season was still playing in the French second division. Franck Ribery’s performance should also provide some intrigue, with the Bayern Munich winger poised to face several of his Bundesliga team-mates and rivals. France go into the game buoyed by two excellent recent displays: a 2-1 friendly victory in Italy and a valuable 1-1 draw with Spain in their qualifying group for Brazil 2014.
Despite holding the Netherlands to a goalless draw in November, Germany, for their part, are still smarting from their poor performance a month earlier against Sweden in which they conceded four goals in 28 minutes to draw 4-4. Coach Joachim Low also has a selection headache, with Bastian Schweinsteiger, Marcel Schmelzer, Marco Reus and Mario Gotze unavailable and Miroslav Klose, Ilkay Gundogan and Lars Bender all major doubts.
The Netherlands have gone five games unbeaten since their 4-2 defeat in Belgium back in August, thanks largely to a solid defence that has conceded just twice, and a potent forward line that has produced 13 goals. With that in mind, the core of Louis van Gaal’s squad is largely unchanged for the match against Italy. Van Gaal’s opposite number, Cesare Prandelli, has a bit more thinking to do, with Christian Maggio, Federico Balzaretti, Claudio Marchisio, Mattia Destro and Giorgio Chiellini all unavailable.
Prandelli is also without Leonardo Bonucci, having dropped the Juventus defender for breaching his code of ethics in a recent game against Genoa. In-form Lazio goalkeeper Federico Marchetti returns to the squad for the first time since the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa, while new AC Milan team-mates Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy will be looking to continue their burgeoning partnership.
Alejandro Sabella’s Argentina squad to face Sweden is almost entirely Europe-based, with Santos midfielder Walter Montillo the only player plying his trade in South America. The match provides a reunion for former Barcelona team-mates Lionel Messi, winner of four straight Ballon d’Or awards, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who hit four goals against England in November.
Reigning world champions Spain will be without the injured quintet of Iker Casillas, Fernando Torres, Roberto Soldado, Xavi and Xabi Alonso for their high-profile friendly against Uruguay in Doha. In their absence, Malaga starlet Isco will be hoping to make his senior debut. Uruguay, 16th in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, go into the game in mixed form. La Celeste shipped seven goals in two games, losing 3-0 away to Argentina and 4-1 in Bolivia respectively, before improving with a 3-1 victory over Poland.
Player to watch
Francisco Roman Alarcon Suarez, more widely known as Isco, is the latest gem to emerge on the Spanish football scene. The 20-year-old Andalusian, who rose through the ranks at Valencia before joining Malaga in 2011, is another bright attacking option in a Spain midfield already brimming with talent. The youngster has twice been called up by head coach Vicente del Bosque but has yet to make his senior debut.
78 – The number of years since Germany’s last victory in France, a 3-1 win in Paris on 17 March 1935. The two sides have faced each other 24 times in total, with 11 wins for France, seven for Germany, 6 draws and 40 goals apiece. In their three meetings at FIFA World Cup finals, however, Germany hold the edge with two victories, both in semi-finals: a 5-3 penalty-shootout win after a 3-3 draw in 1982, and a 2-0 triumph in 1986. France won 6-3 when the pair met in the match for third place in 1958.
What they said
“I want to get to the World Cup as I have never been to one before. As a club coach I have already won everything, but as a national team coach I have not,” Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal.
Have your say
Who will come out on top in the battle of the goalscorers: Lionel Messi or Zlatan Ibrahimovic?
The full programme
Republic of Ireland-Poland