**On the fourth matchday of European qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, many of the continent’s most formidable teams will take on its lesser lights. While the best example is world champions Germany’s trip to San Marino, matches between Italy and Liechtenstein, Spain and FYR Macedonia and the Netherlands and Luxembourg also fall into this category. Perhaps this week’s most eagerly awaited fixture is England versus Scotland – the first competitive meeting between these two sides in almost 17 years.
Matchday 4 fixtures:
Friday 11 November
Group A: France-Sweden
Group C: Northern Ireland-Azerbaijan, Czech Republic-Norway, San Marino-Germany
Group E: Armenia-Montenegro, Romania-Poland, Denmark-Kazakhstan
Group F: Slovakia-Lithuania, Malta-Slovenia, England-Scotland**
Saturday 12 November
Group D: Austria-Republic of Ireland, Georgia-Moldova, Wales-Serbia
Group G: Albania-Israel, Spain-FYR Macedonia, Liechtenstein-Italy
Group I: Croatia-Iceland, Ukraine-Finland, Turkey-Kosovo
Sunday 13 November
Group A: Bulgaria-Belarus, Luxembourg-Netherlands
Group B: Hungary-Andorra, Switzerland-Faroe Islands, Portugal-Latvia
Group H: Cyprus-Gibraltar, Greece-Bosnia and Herzegovina, Belgium-Estonia
The big match
England-Scotland, Wembley, 11 November, 20.45 CET
The rivalry between England and Scotland is almost as old as the sport itself. While the English have historically been the better team, they frequently struggle against their northern neighbours: of their 112 previous meetings, England have won 47 and Scotland 41.
These age-old rivals last contested a competitive fixture almost 17 years ago in a thrilling EURO 2000 play-off. The tie seemed all but settled after the Three Lions’ 2-0 first-leg win in Glasgow, only for the Scots to win the return leg in Wembley 1-0 to send the English to the EUROs by the narrowest of margins.
Scotland have since become rank outsiders, and their manager Gordon Strachan is under pressure to turn things around after a poor start to their Russia 2018 campaign. “The two teams need a result badly,” he said. “We have set ourselves back. At the moment I just think I am the best man to go down there with the group and get a result.”
Meanwhile England are still looking for a long-term solution to their own managerial problems, with interim coach Gareth Southgate taking charge of the team against Scotland. “It’s the oldest international fixture and it’s important for our players that they understand that,” he explained. “We also need to have emotional control going into the game, so we’ve got to pitch that at the right level.”
The other attractions
The big game in Group A between France and Sweden will be contested by two teams on the same number of points (7) and goals scored (5 scored, 1 conceded), while the Netherlands will try to close the gap to both sides by collecting three points in Luxembourg. Meanwhile Bulgaria and Belarus will battle it out in Sofia for the chance to stay within reach of the teams above them.
With three matches, nine points and victory over European champions Portugal already under their belt, Switzerland could hardly have wished for a better start to life in Group B, and will be keen to secure another three points at home to the Faroe Islands. The same will also be true of Portugal as they host Latvia, and Hungary as they welcome an Andorra side yet to register a point.
It is difficult to imagine a more extreme pairing in European football than Germany’s trip to San Marino in Group C. The reigning world champions and FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking second-placed side will line up against the micro-state of San Marino, who at 201st in the world are Europe’s third-weakest side ahead of Andorra (203rd) and Gibraltar (205th). The two teams met in EURO 2008 qualifying, with the Germans recording resounding 13-0 and 6-0 wins. Elsewhere, the group’s surprise second-place side Azerbaijan will be keen to defend their position with a successful visit to Northern Ireland, while Czech Republic will seek to stake their own claim on the runner-up spot with victory at home to Norway after making a disappointing start to qualifying.
Cardiff will play host to Group D’s biggest match as EURO 2016 semi-finalists Wales take on group leaders Serbia. Austria’s talented team face a tough test in their home game against Republic of Ireland, currently level on points with the Serbians in second place, while Georgia (1 point) and Moldova (0) will both be hoping to take maximum points for the first time in this campaign.
Poland have scored seven goals in three qualifiers so far, five of them netted by star striker and The Best FIFA Men’s Player 2016 nominee Robert Lewandowski. Romania will need to mark the Bayern striker out of the game if they are to get anything from their Group E home tie against the Poles. Denmark will be aiming for a home win over Kazakhstan after falling short of their own expectations with three points from qualifying so far, while shock group leaders Montenegro (7 points with 7 goals scored and 1 conceded) will give their all to retain top spot as they travel to Armenia, who have yet to pick up a point.
While the main focus in Group F will be on England versus Scotland, Slovakia and Lithuania and Malta and Slovenia will seek to quietly gather a few extra points in their quests to make it to Russia.
Group G remains a lengthy duel between footballing giants Italy and Spain. Both face opponents without a single point to their name this week, as Giampiero Ventura’s side travel to Liechtenstein and Julen Lopetegui’s charges host FYR Macedonia. With six points apiece, Albania and Israel are just one point behind the two heavyweights as they prepare to face each other in Shkoder.
Belgium and Greece have yet to drop a point in Group H as they welcome Estonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina respectively. While Gibraltar and Cyprus both failing to get off the mark so far, the fortunes of at least one of these sides will change as they meet in the Mediterranean this week.
In Group I, Croatia will no doubt build on their solid defensive performances (8 goals scored and 1 conceded) against EURO 2016 heroes Iceland, while Ukraine seek to continue their strong start (5 points, two fewer than the leading pair) with a home win over Finland. Elsewhere, Turkey will be keen to collect three points at home to Kosovo after recording two draws and a defeat in their campaign so far.
*Player to watch
*Despite being unable to completely fulfil the expectations placed upon him as a youngster, Theo Walcott is now enjoying a rich vein of form. The 27-year-old Arsenal forward has scored seven goals in his last eight matches, mostly from the right wing. Having netted just eight goals in 46 international appearances, Walcott will no doubt earn the fans’ gratitude if he can improve this tally against Scotland on Friday.
*Did you know?
*England versus Scotland is the oldest international fixture in football. While the first match in Glasgow in November 1872 ended in a 0-0 draw, there have been plenty of goals in their subsequent encounters. If the Three Lions score at least twice on Friday evening, they will be able to celebrate their 200th goal against their rivals from north of the border.
What they said
*"Life is totally different since the EUROs. I felt like everyone was staring at me and recognising me. I was actually a bit uncomfortable with it. I didn’t really like it but it’s something you have to get used to. I like to walk around London because nobody knows me here."
*Iceland’s EURO hero and Fulham defender Ragnar Sigurdsson