1) Barkley left on the sidelines – again
Unfortunately for Ross Barkley, it is not just Gareth Southgate who seems to have a few misgivings about whether the Everton player deserves to come in from the edges when he is with the England squad. Barkley was one of the notable absentees when Sam Allardyce named his one and only squad as the national team manager.
Roy Hodgson did not give him a single minute in Euro 2016 and Barkley was one of only two outfield players, the other being Nathaniel Clyne, not to feature during England’s 1-0 defeat against Germany and the 2-0 win over Lithuania.
Southgate felt compelled to have a long discussion with Barkley on Saturday and praised him for his improved performances at Everton, having previously left him out during his four-game period in interim charge towards the end of last year. Yet Barkley is entitled to be frustrated when he has not started an England game for a year and managed the grand total of zero minutes from his last seven call-ups.
Southgate had kind words to say about him after the latest international break but he is also the third England manager in a row who has not fully trusted Barkley – not yet, anyway – and, for all his undoubted talent, the midfielder should probably acknowledge they cannot all be mistaken. Daniel Taylor
2) The pros of video technology outweigh the cons
France and Spain delivered an excellent demonstration of the merits of video referees: not without a downside, but their contribution overall was overwhelmingly positive. On ITV4, where the match was being broadcast in the UK, Paul Ince was absolutely incandescent about the whole business, but his seemed a very hard stance to justify.
The main effect had been on players’ celebrations: one, French, which started brightly enough, was briefly paused and then cancelled altogether; another, Spanish, started belatedly and, the moment having passed, was brief and a bit half-hearted when finally green-lit.
But both decisions were made inside 30 seconds, were indisputably crucial to the match, and corrected on-field injustices. The referee did not continually halt what was by the standards of international friendlies an excellent match to seek a second opinion on every throw-in and shirt-pull.
If immediate celebration is to be the one occasional casualty of the arrival of truth and justice, it is a price worth paying many times over. And anyway this is a cloud with a silver lining for celebration fans, as for every cheer that is choked there is likely to be another occasion – as with Gerard Deulofeu at the Stade de France – when video officials allow a single goal to be saluted twice. Simon Burnton
3) Washington takes the pressure off Lafferty
Northern Ireland have reached what Michael O’Neill says is the “new psychological landscape” of 10 points in Group C, following another assertive display at home in their 2-0 win against Norway. There are, however, questions over the manager. Will O’Neill still be around to guide his tight-knit squad to the playoffs?
He is an experienced coach noted for his intense, strategic thinking and ability to maximise performance levels on big occasions; such attributes should appeal to managerless Middlesbrough and Norwich. The next game, away to Azerbaijan in June, brings logistical concerns of travel and lack of competitive preparation beyond the end of the club season. Having beaten the Azeris 4-0 last November there are no confidence issues.
Additionally, where scoring was once a sensitive subject, it’s significantly less so over this campaign now that Conor Washington had emerged. The QPR striker netted a third international goal against the Norwegians, thus reducing the team’s habitual reliance on Kyle Lafferty. Julian Taylor
4) Scotland have little margin for error when England visit
The crowd inside Hampden Park on Sunday was sparse – “If you aren’t playing well then nobody really wants to go and see you,” accepted Gordon Strachan – but there is no prospect of a repeat when England arrive on 10 June for a match that assumed far greater importance with Chris Martin’s 88th-minute winner against Slovenia.
It is not simply a renewal of historic rivalry in Scottish eyes. Strachan’s side have little margin for error in their bid to finish second in Group F and, realistically, may require maximum points from remaining home games against England, Malta and Slovakia.
An added bonus of Sunday’s win for the manager – beyond preserving his job – was a first-half performance that augurs well for the visit of Gareth Southgate’s team. Asked whether he believed England could be beaten with a repeat display, Strachan said: “Yes I do. But what I would like between now and then is for players to get a regular game for their clubs.
"The Leigh Griffiths that has played the last 10 games for Celtic takes the chances that we created against Slovenia. But it is not easy when you aren’t playing regularly to hit the bar then the post and keep going. But he did it.” Andy Hunter
5) Could Argentina miss out on the World Cup?
Lionel Messi could, of course, have spared us all this when he retired from international football last June, only to return to the Argentina fold weeks later. But the threat of a Messi-less World Cup now looks exceedingly real given Argentina’s struggles without him.
Placed fifth in the Conmebol qualifying group with four games left following their limp defeat in Bolivia, they will have to find some way of coping while he serves the final three matches of the suspension that was handed to him a matter of hours before kick-off in La Paz.
The timing was ludicrous and the ramifications could be extreme; if there is a silver lining it is that two of the games Messi will miss are home ties with Venezuela and Peru, but first comes a visit to neighbours Uruguay in August and it is a match Edgardo Bauza’s side dare not lose.
You wonder at the decision-making that took Messi out of the equation so late in the day, with the punishment imposed after Fifa viewed footage of an incident in last week’s win over Chile that did not make the referee’s report, and query whether the offence merited quite such a severe sanction.
But it is done, pending any possible appeal, and Messi, who will turn 31 during the World Cup, could easily have played his last game on that stage if his team-mates do not rally. Nick Ames
6) Donnarumma and Gagliardini lead way for young Italy
Gianluigi Buffon was a relatively mature 19 years and nine months when he made his full Italy debut. Gianluigi Donnarumma only turned 18 a month ago, and as of Tuesday night is the youngest goalkeeper ever to start a game for Italy (he’s the youngest substitute goalie as well, having made his first appearance last September).
The comparisons must grow tiresome, but are inevitable as the youngster continues to impress. There were several saves in Amsterdam – and in particular two from the second-half substitute Wesley Sneijder – that caught the eye. In midfield Italy also had a debutant auditioning for a role presumably soon to be vacated by one of the team’s elder statesmen: Roberto Gagliardini, who made his Serie A debut for Atalanta only last May and joined Internazionale in January.
The previous day he had been anointed by Daniele de Rossi as his “heir” who is “different to the others” and “destined to become a pillar of this team”. De Rossi also said that “I hope I don’t jinx him” but in fact he jinxed himself, with a first-half injury allowing Gagliardini to audition for the role somewhat sooner than the 33-year-old incumbent might have anticipated.
Victory somewhat flattered a flawed Italy performance, but with five debuts in all the match might be remembered for more than the result. SB
7) A captain’s performance from Neymar
Following the disastrous reign of the unnecessarily spiky and confrontational Dunga, Brazil are a team transformed under Tite and their 3-0 win over Paraguay on Tuesday night proved enough to secure their qualification for the World Cup when results elsewhere went their way.
In nine months with the popular former Corinthians boss at the helm, Brazil have won a record-breaking eight straight qualifiers and although the playing personnel remain largely the same, the Seleção are unrecognisable from the disaffected rabble that had failed so spectacularly to put that humiliation at the hands of Germany behind them. As well as tactical switches, Tite has introduced a rotating captaincy and six different players have led out the team in the eight qualifiers he has overseen.
Last night it was the turn of Neymar to wear the armband for the first time since standing down as skipper and telling his manager to “find another captain” after leading Brazil to Olympic gold at Rio 2016. The obvious warmth between Neymar and his manager was apparent at their pre-match press conference on Monday and despite missing a penalty the Barcelona forward led from the front with a virtuoso performance as he scored his first ever goal against Paraguay.
Considering the baffling amount of significance that is placed on the role in England’s national team, Tite’s policy of simply awarding the captaincy to whoever he feels might benefit most from it on any given day seems a shrewd move Gareth Southgate ought to consider. Barry Glendenning
8) Portugal need somebody other than Ronaldo to step up
The airport in Funchal – Cristiano Ronaldo’s home town – will officially be named after the island of Madeira’s favourite son on Wednesday. It has been an emotional return for Ronaldo, who brought the Portugal national team and the Euro 2016 trophy with him, this week and the local euphoria heightened when he opened the scoring against Sweden.
But by the end of the friendly Fernando Sanches was labelling his side’s second-half performance “not responsible” and it was certainly a surprise to see the European Champions turn a two-goal lead into defeat against an inexperienced visiting side.
That it came three days after a resounding win over Hungary that put their World Cup qualifying campaign on track will have been particularly frustrating, and although a raft of second-half substitutions may have contributed to their defeat they were off-key even before getting their noses in front. Portugal’s victories since winning Euro 2016 have come against Gibraltar, Andorra, Faroe Islands, Latvia and the Hungarians; they have lost arguably their sternest tests against Switzerland and Sweden, who are still relatively moderate opponents.
It is too early to draw conclusions beyond what we already know – that Portugal are a fairly good side who overperformed to their huge credit in France – but they need to buck up if they are to have a chance of turning heads at the World Cup and with Ronaldo, who also scored twice against Hungary, getting no younger alternatives need to step up. NA
9) Bulgaria aim to scratch 14-year itch
Strange as it may sound, Bulgaria are yet to lose a home game against Holland. Last Saturday Petar Hubchev’s team piled more misery on the Oranje with a 2-0 win in what turned out to be Danny Blind’s last game in charge.
They leapfrogged the Dutch into third place in Group A, moving just a point behind second-placed Sweden, and have a chance of reaching their first major tournament since Euro 2004. Hubchev, part of Bulgaria’s class of ’94 that made the World Cup semi-finals in America, completely outfoxed Blind, with the visitors’ first shot on target not coming until the 57th minute. “We’re one step closer to our dream of playing at Russia 2018, but we should keep our feet on the ground,” Hubchev said after the game, allowing his players to celebrate the victory with some pizza and beer.
The man of the moment is forward Spas Delev who scored a brace against Holland, his first goals for the national side. Bulgaria’s next two games are against Belarus away and Sweden at home. Metodi Shumanov
10) An impressive Irish debut for Horgan
A little over three months ago, Daryl Horgan was playing for League of Ireland side Dundalk, but the winger has since moved to England to make the step-up with Preston North End and last night made his debut in the Republic of Ireland’s friendly defeat at the hands of Iceland.
While both teams fielded second string sides in a tedious spectacle that did little to suggest international friendlies are anything other than exercises in total pointlessness, Martin O’Neill took the opportunity to blood four new players and Horgan looked as assured and at home in the international team as had in Preston’s side during his debut against Arsenal in the FA Cup third round.
“I just tried to play my normal game, I tried to affect the game,” he said after an assured 30-minute performance after coming off the bench. “That’s the point of wingers really. I just tried to get on the ball and tried to do things and that’s the only thing I had in my head really.” Martin O’Neill seems to have found a player with the quality and level-headed composure to grace bigger international stages in the future. BG