1) Injury-ravaged Ireland could be there for the taking
Wales were on a giddy high after last summer’s European Championship, following their appearance in the semi-finals, while the Republic of Ireland team departed from France with a sense of disappointment after losing in the second round. Their fortunes have rather reversed since: Ireland top Group D with three wins from four, whereas Wales only have one victory to their name. The game between the two on Friday could be the best chance Chris Coleman’s side have to get their qualification campaign going, if only because of Ireland’s injuries. “How long have you got?” said Martin O’Neill when asked about the many ailing players in his squad, from which you could fashion a respectable team. Shane Duffy, Ciaran Clark, Harry Arter, Wes Hoolahan, Daryl Murphy, Rob Elliot, Paul McShane and Liam Kelly are all out, James McCarthy is doubtful, while Seamus Coleman, Jonny Hayes and Shane Long all missed at least some training in the lead-up to the game. Ireland could be there for the taking.
2) Buffon goes on and on
Gigi Buffon says he will retire after the 2018 World Cup, by which time he’ll be 40. But given he’s an age-defying deity whose body should be preserved for science and/or exhibition, he’ll probably be absolutely fine to carry on for another few years. There are suggestions he could change his mind, but his announcement may well have conjured a few thoughts in the minds of his Italian colleagues along the lines of “Well, we’d better bloody qualify, then.” Things are going to plan on that score. They are level on 10 points at the top of their group with Spain, with the slight sense that everything until the two meet in September is basically punctuation. Friday’s game in Palermo against Albania should not be enormously problematic for the Italians, but it will nevertheless retain some extra significance for Buffon: this will be his 1,000th senior game, for club and country, a milestone he recently claimed not to be aware of. That’s 220 for Parma, 612 for Juventus and Friday will be his 168th cap for the Azzuri. Follow that, Gigi Donnarumma.
3) Is this the last chance for Strachan?
“The board are convinced that he still has the hunger for this challenge and we have four home qualifiers in 2017 to rejuvenate our campaign. We support Gordon unanimously in improving our qualification prospects.” That’s what a statement from the SFA said back in November, as the clamour for Gordon Strachan’s head grew following an opening four games in which Scotland gathered a paltry four points, only managing to beat Malta and losing bleakly to Slovakia and England. It’s nice that the governing body are happy with the work Strachan is doing, but it’s hard to think that this state of affairs can continue for much longer. Should the game against Slovenia on Sunday evening not go well, one wonders if they can afford to keep Strachan on. The prospect of humiliation against England when the sides meet in June is very real. This isn’t about qualification for Russia 2018 – that surely is a pipe dream, even now – but more about planning for the future with a group of players that is capable of more.
4) Will Southgate continue to make England interesting?
When an England manager has the temerity to try something a little different in a friendly, as Gareth Southgate did by playing a 3-4-3 against Germany on Wednesday, one is torn between the desire to praise him for using the game for something potentially relatively useful, and a crushing sense of ennui. A glance at England’s record in knockout games (no major tournament wins since Ecuador were vanquished in 2006, if you’d lost track) suggests all of this is a vaguely pointless endeavour, that any England manager striving for success and/or attractive football in the interim resembles a man straightening his tie before dinner with some particularly hostile in-laws: looking smart before the main event might not do you much good. Still, this might free Southgate up a little bit, – we probably all know how this ends, but why not try a few things before the inevitable conclusion? While it’s natural that an England manager might tend towards conservatism, to do one’s best to avoid being the guy who failed to even qualify, you hope that Southgate might continue with a little experimentation against Lithuania. Anything to make England games interesting.
5) Chile might be grateful for just a play-off spot
When Alexis Sánchez posted a picture of himself training with Chile this week in only a very small pair of shorts, a couple of things were noticeable: firstly, how sad it is when someone lets themselves go like that, but also the massive strapping on his right ankle. Arséne Wenger said after the West Brom game, in which Sánchez was injured by a set of rogue James McClean studs, that his ankle was “in a terrible state”, but there he was, this never-stopping sack of muscle and energy, looking absolutely delighted with the world. Not that it did Chile much good on Thursday night, of course: the 1-0 defeat to Argentina, in which Sánchez played the full, Arsenal nerve-inducing 90 minutes, pushed the Copa América holders down into sixth place in the South American table. Admittedly just three points separate them and Uruguay in second, but this was another disappointing result in a qualification campaign that has underwhelmed, and at the moment Chile might be grateful for even managing a play-off place. Sunday’s game against Venezuela is now even more crucial.
6) The dream is flickering for Tahiti
And if Argentina don’t manage to make that top four, they could face a play-off against, as you surely know, Tahiti. The tiny island has, it goes without saying, never qualified for the World Cup before, but their chances of making it increased this week when they came from behind to beat Papua New Guinea 3-1. The two sides will meet again on Tuesday, and another victory there should put them into the final round (although agonisingly that won’t be confirmed until June). If they qualify, they will probably face New Zealand for the chance to play off against the fifth-placed South American side. There are several hurdles to jump, and given that their sole appearance in the Confederations Cup (in 2013) saw three defeats with an aggregate score of 24-1, they probably shouldn’t book flights to Russia just yet... but the dream is flickering.
7) Qualification now Northern Ireland’s realistic aim
Michael O’Neill’s first game in charge of Northern Ireland was against Norway, back in 2012. The Norwegians won handily, a 3-0 victory coming in the middle of a 22-game run in which O’Neill’s side managed only to beat the Faroe Islands. Things have changed rather since then, ahead of Norway’s return to Belfast on Sunday, and after an encouraging showing at Euro 2016, it’s interesting to note the terms in which most around the Northern Ireland squad are talking. “The players talk among themselves about how confident we are,” said winger Stuart Dallas this week. “We can’t really see ourselves getting beaten or putting in a bad performance.” O’Neill himself spoke about this fixture “setting up” bigger games ahead against Germany and the Czech Republic, and is no longer speaking in terms of progress or incremental improvement: qualification for the World Cup, for the first time in a generation, is their realistic aim.
8) Mbappé adds to France’s absurd array of attacking options
France’s attacking options already looked absurd last summer, with Didier Deschamps able to leave out Hatem Ben Arfa, Alexandre Lacazette and Kevin Gameiro, and not lose too much sleep over the absence of Nabil Fekir or Karim Benzema. Now, to Antoine Griezmann, Kingsley Coman, Anthony Martial, Fekir, Lacazette and Ousmane Dembélé, add the wunderkind du jour, Kylian Mbappé, apple of many scouts around Europe’s eyes and the 18-year-old who looks to be the next great talent of French football. “The fact that it is his first time with the national team does not mean he cannot start,” said Deschamps ahead of France’s qualifier against Luxembourg on Saturday. Mbappé’s age suggests he’s a boy, a young stripling with plenty to learn, but anyone who has watched him play will tell you he already looks like a man, in body and temperament. And, the chances are before the weekend is out, a full international too.
9) Australia’s chances are looking perilous
Ange Postecoglou is a man with grander plans than mere qualification for the World Cup. “I know people feel good about qualification, I understand that — I certainly want to,” he said earlier this week, commenting that he was looking for something bigger. “Just qualifying for a World Cup has proven in the past is not as fulfilling as maybe people think it is when you’re in the middle of it,” he continued. However, that was before Thursday’s 1-1 draw with Iraq, a game in which Australia clung onto a point in terrible conditions, but now Postecoglou might be pining for the unfulfilled days of simple qualification. Australia have just two wins to their name in this campaign, with both Saudi Arabia and Japan in better shape at the halfway stage of the group. There is a very real possibility that Australia will miss out on the tournament for the first time since 2002. Postecoglou is famously stubborn, but he may have to change a few things to improve his team’s chances.
10) Kosovo’s big chance for their first win
Those of you who had been keeping track of the remarkable Kosovo story, as they struggled to gain acceptance into the Fifa club and start the business of qualifying for major tournaments, might be interested to see how it’s going. Well, erm, not brilliantly so far. After a heart-lifting 1-1 draw with Finland in their opening game, the new boys were on the wrong end of a 6-0 hosing by Croatia, before 3-0 and 2-0 away defeats to Ukraine and Turkey. This weekend perhaps represents their best chance so far to notch a first competitive win, as they host the team of Roy Hodgson’s nightmares, Iceland. Kosovo coach Albert Bunjaki pointed to Iceland as an inspiration for his own team earlier this month, but is clearly not keen on accepting gradual progress. “The time has come for a victory,” Bunjaki said, “and we enter this match to win.”