After competing in an opening round of fixtures in September, European nations are readying themselves for the second and third matches of the qualifying campaign for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. FIFA.com reviews the matches taking place over the coming week, including a much-anticipated duel between Italy and Spain, and a chance for UEFA EURO 2016 finalists France and Portugal to bounce back from disappointing starts.
Matchday 2 fixtures:
Thursday 6 October
Group D: Austria-Wales, Ireland-Georgia, Moldova-Serbia
Group G: Italy-Spain, Liechtenstein-Albania, Macedonia-Israel
Group I: Kosovo-Croatia, Iceland-Finland, Turkey-Ukraine
Friday 7 October
Group A: France-Bulgaria, Netherlands-Belarus, Luxembourg-Sweden
Group B: *Hungary-Switzerland, Latvia-Faroe Islands, Portugal-Andorra
*Group H: Belgium-Bosnia-Herzegovina, Greece-Cyprus, Estonia-Gibraltar
Saturday 8 October
Group C: *Germany-Czech Republic, Azerbaijan-Norway, Northern Ireland-San Marino
*Group E: Poland-Denmark, Montenegro-Kazakhstan, Armenia-Romania
Group F: Scotland-Lithuania, England-Malta, Slovenia-Slovakia
The big match
Italy-Spain, Turin, 6 October, 20:45 (local time)
*The clash between Italy and Spain in Group G will be the first time that the traditional European heavyweights have met at this stage, although they have locked horns at the World Cup itself, their last such encounter dating back to 1994, when *La Nazionale got the better of La Roja (2-1) in the quarter-finals. However, the solid 2-0 victory that the Italians enjoyed in the Round of 16 of EURO 2016 will be freshest in both teams’ memories. In addition, Italy will be able to count on a partisan crowd at Juventus Stadium, where they have yet to lose a match.
Giampiero Ventura will need to do without Giorgio Chiellini in defence, after the robust defender received a red card in the game with Israel, which the Italians still managed to win 3-1, despite enduring a few concerning moments. There is no margin for that type of error against Spain, who were ruthless in their 8-0 defeat of Liechtenstein in September – a result that extended their unbeaten run in World Cup qualifiers to an incredible 54 matches – and who will welcome the previously injured Andres Iniesta back into the fold.
The other matches *In *Group A, France will look to get back on track at home to Bulgaria after flattering to deceive in an opening 0-0 draw in Belarus, and will hope that some form of inspiration can be provided by Antoine Griezmann and Dimitri Payet, who both put in excellent performances with their respective clubs at the weekend, especially as the Bulgarian defence did not look particularly rigid in the country’s closely contested 4-3 victory over Luxembourg. Elsewhere in this pool, a youthful, Wesley Sneijder-led Netherlands side, who drew 1-1 with Sweden in their first fixture, will aim to give themselves a confidence boost versus Belarus prior to taking on France at home on Monday.
In Group B, Hungary, who failed to impress in a 0-0 draw with the Faroe Islands, have the tricky task of grappling with a high-flying Swiss team that unexpectedly disposed of European champions Portugal 2-0 last time out. Andorra will likely feel the backlash of that result as they travel to Aveiro, where the Lusitanians will be boosted by the return of Cristiano Ronaldo.
After putting on a masterclass in Norway (3-0), Germany will have an excellent opportunity to pull away at the top of Group C when they play host to Czech Republic.
At the upper end of Group D, Austria will need to be wary of the threat posed by Wales in Vienna, and by Gareth Bale in particular, after the dynamic Welshman notched a brace against Moldova in September.
Following a tight 1-0 win at home to Armenia in Group E, Denmark will have to step up a gear if they are to take any points from a Robert Lewandowski-inspired Poland, who will doubtless be keen to move on from their regrettable 2-2 draw in Kazakhstan. Romania, meanwhile, travel to Armenia in search of their first success of the campaign, after Nicolae Stanciu missed a penalty that would have enabled them to collect all three points in their opening match with Montenegro (1-1).
In Group F, England, who found the going tough against Slovakia despite picking up all three points in the final seconds (1-0), welcome Malta in difficult circumstances, following the departure of Sam Allardyce, who has been temporarily replaced by Gareth Southgate. Scotland, who sit proudly at the top of the section after putting five goals past Malta, are at home to Lithuania.
The intriguing duel in Group H between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Belgium looks likely to be an attacking affair, with both strikeforces finding themselves in rich veins of form. Roberto Martinez’ Diables Rouges will have to make do without Kevin de Bruyne up front and Thomas Vermaelen and Vincent Kompany at the back.
Unusually, the opening round of games inGroup I all ended in 1-1 stalemates. One of those was Kosovo’s historic World Cup debut in Finland, and for their second-ever match at this level, the international newcomers will be able to rely on a raucous home support. Their opponents on Thursday, Croatia, were held at home by Turkey in their first match, and coach Ante Cacic must now also deal with the crucial absences of Ivan Rakitic, Luka Modric and Dejan Lovren.
Players to watch *“There are players that I’ve worked with before at U-21 level, like *Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard,” explained England caretaker manager Southgate, after having called up the two young Manchester United stars for the matches against Malta and Slovenia. Rashford (19 years old, 3 caps), makes his return after participating in EURO 2016 and making a fine start to the season, scoring four goals in nine matches. As for Lingard (23), this is his first senior international call-up.
*Did you know? *In 20 encounters, France and Bulgaria have each won eight times, and drawn the remaining four matches. The thought of taking on Bulgaria may bring back bad memories for Les Bleus, as it was Emil Kostadinov’s famous last-gasp strike that unceremoniously ended France’s hopes of qualifying for USA 1994. Didier Deschamps, who played in that match, stated during a recent press conference that he did not “really want to talk about that”, adding that “it was 23 years ago, and time to move on”. However, Bulgaria coach Petar Houbtchev, who started the 1993 game in defence, may well take a different view.
What they said