World Cup qualifiers return to center stage over the next week with some tantalizing matches to be played.
SPAIN AT ITALY – TURIN, OCTOBER 6, 2016
A little over three months ago, Italy overwhelmed Spain at Euro 2016. The 2 – 0 scoreline barely reflected the Azzurri’s dominance over the then-defending European champions.
Since that afternoon in Paris, the two countries have appointed new head coaches. Italy turned to veteran Giampero Ventura, giving him his 21st senior job. Ventura lost his debut, a 1 – 3 reverse against France in Bari but when it mattered, the Italians ran out convincing 3 – 1 winners over Israel in Haifa in the first World Cup qualifying match.
The Spaniards meanwhile enlisted former Porto coach, Julen Lopetegui. Under his stewardship, Spain is unbeaten. A 2 – 0 win over the highly-rated Belgians was followed by crushing 8 – 0 victory in their first World Cup qualifier against Liechtenstein.
A former goalkeeper with Real Madrid and Barcelona, Lopetegui has been praised by Sergio Busquets as a tactical general. La Roja are out for revenge, determined to make up for their sub-par performance in the summer. However, Italy is unbeaten in 51 qualifying matches, a record stretching back ten years.
Italy is famed for its defensive abilities but it’s the Spanish centre backs who are the more dangerous. Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique have both been in fine goalscoring form for their clubs and it’s this danger which raises them above their opponents and may ultimately separate the two sides.
It will be a tight game but bet on Spain to win this one.
USA AT CUBA – HAVANA, OCTOBER 9, 2016
For the first time since 1947, the USA Men’s National Team will play a fixture in Cuba. The two nations have met since then in World Cups and Gold Cups but not voluntarily.
The match will give Jurgen Klinsmann answers before their November World Cup Qualifiers against Mexico and in Costa Rica. Whether he will like what he learns is another matter.
The two nations last met in July 2015 when the USA ran out 6 – 0 winners in Baltimore. A similar scoreline might be on the cards if the strikers combine well. Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood has the potential to be a strong partnership for the USAMNT, particularly if Sacha Kljestan revives his form in the last three matches.
Christian Pulisic is settling into international football with three goals in his eight caps so far. The Dortmund youngster is one of Europe’s hottest properties at the moment, with English Premier League side Liverpool strongly linked with the winger over the summer.
With another friendly against New Zealand next week, Klinsmann has taken the opportunity to draft in three younger goalkeepers with Brad Guzan not featuring for Middlesbrough and Tim Howard with the Rapids. Long-term succession planning is vital for the future success.
Whether Bingham, Horvath or Yarborough will be busy is debatable. This ought to be a comfortable USA win by at least three.
FRANCE AT NETHERLANDS – AMSTERDAM, OCTOBER 10, 2016
Having missed out on Euro 2016, the Dutch are determined not to miss Russia 2018.
A 1 – 1 draw with Sweden in their opening group game was a good start. Their home form remains atrocious; they haven’t won in Amsterdam since March 2015, losing to USA, Iceland, Czech Republic and France. A switch to Eindhoven saw the fare little better in their last match, losing 1 – 2 to Greece.
By contrast, France’s solitary defeat in 2016 came against Portugal in the final of the European championships. It was an object lesson in frustration from the Portuguese, especially after Cristiano Ronaldo succumbed to injury. They defended stoically which may be a hint for the Netherlands on how to approach the game although it is the very antithesis of the Total Football for which the country is famed.
Their current problem appears to be scoring goals. Olivier Giroud and Karim Benzema are both missing from Didier Deschamps squad, leaving the Atletico Madrid duo of Gameiro and Griezmann likely to start, although Manchester United’s Anthony Martial may be given a berth leading the line.
The Dutch are similarly challenged. Bas Dost and Vincent Janssen aren’t in the best of goalscoring form for their country, whilst Memphis Depay is proving to be an expensive flop at Manchester United.
More Dutch misery at home seems the likeliest outcome, with France to win by two.