Fierce club competition has been put on hold at the most inopportune moment for another slew of 2016 UEFA Euro Qualifiers. Nevertheless, international competition is always useful in gauging the careers of up-and-coming talent and also, making a bit of money from the bookies. In fact, a few big sides find themselves struggling to stay in contention for a place in the European showpiece. Belgium’s stars will need to prove their collective value sooner rather than later, while former European champions Greece face the likely prospect of not making it out of a non-threatening group.
Friday 27 March
The Three Lions will be hoping to pick up from where they left off in European qualification, having taken maximum points from their four matches so far. They top Group E comfortably, six points ahead of Slovenia, and will look forward to an eminently winnable fixture against a Lithuanian side that England haven’t faced since their opponents’ reintroduction to international football in 1991. Daniel Sturridge is out injured, paving the way for Harry Kane’s debut following an incredibly prolific season in the Tottenham Hotspurs jersey. He’ll likely partner Wayne Rooney up front, with fellow Spurs rookie Ryan Mason also a late addition in place of the injured Adam Lallana. England shouldn’t have too many problem disposing of Lithuania and I’m tipping the Three Lions to win on the halftime-fulltime double, boosting returns to 5/10.
Spain 1/ 4
Spain come into this clash a bit short of strikers with Diego Costa in doubt and Alcacer ruled out. Juventus forward Alvaro Morata could start against Ukraine with Juanmi from Malaga added to the squad as potential back-up. The Ukraine have never beaten Spain on the international stage but will draw upon the fact that they are equal on points in Group C with the European giants. Yarmolenko has begun attracting interest in the Premier League following his stunning display for Dynamo Kyiv in dumping Everton out of the Europa League. Ukraine will believe that they can cause an upset but I feel that the ongoing spat with Russia in club football could prove a large distraction given how things have transpired. Back Spain to come away with the win.
Both Montenegro and Russia are locked in mid-table in Group B, making this a crunch match in the push for European qualification. It will the first time that these two countries meet in international football and although they face a relatively uphill battle in a tough group, picking up points remains of the utmost importance. Montenegro have already beaten Moldova, drawn with both Sweden and Liechtenstein and lost to Austria. Russia will be expected to put in a big performance here but Montenegro have been a tough nut to crack at home. I can foresee a stalemate. If you’re put off the draw at 2/1, under 2.5 goals at 9/20 also looks a great bet.
Saturday 28 March
Welsh boss Chris Coleman has slammed Cristiano Ronaldo’s treatment of Gareth Bale as the superstar continues to face marginalisation at current club Real Madrid. He’ll be pleased to be out of Spain and back on international duty as an exit from the club at the end of season looms. With James Chester still sidelined, West Ham’s James Collins has been drafted into central defence. His feud with the current manager is apparently a thing of the past. Ashley Williams earns his fiftieth Welsh cap as he captains the side in their first ever fixture with Israel. The home side top the group with three consecutive wins and a game in hand and will draw upon the fervent home support in this clash. A tough one to call but it seems as though Israel are on a roll and with home support are tipped to oust Wales at 17/20.
Croatia top Group H on ten points, level with Italy. Norway are only a point behind and will not feel daunted by a trip to Croatia’s unruly support base. Norway have picked up two of their wins on the road but admittedly, the victories were against lesser opposition. Croatia’s Dejan Lovren will miss the match but it shouldn’t prevent the home side stretching their lead at the top of the table. Back Croatia to pick up a tight victory at 4/10.
Italian coach Antonio Conte has named three uncapped players in his squad ahead of their clash with Bulgaria. No surprise that there was no space for Mario Balotelli, but an injury to Andrea Pirlo means that Mirko Valdifiori comes in to shore up the middle of the park. This is a match where tireless running from the likes of Verratti will go a long way to securing victory. And indeed, Italy should have enough firepower to see off a stuttering Bulgarian side. Back the away side at a decent 8/10.
The Netherlands are in desperate need of a win as their European qualification currently hangs in the balance. They’re not in poor shape, three points behind Iceland in third place in Group A, but need to kick on to avoid being left behind. The Dutch are facing pressing injury concerns with Arjen Robben, Robin Van Persie and Ron Vlaar all ruled out. Promes from Spartak Moscow has been called up to replace Robben, while Wolfsburg striker Bas Dost finds a place in the squad at the expense of Van Persie. Turkey have only beaten the Dutch once in their history and never in Amsterdam. Back the Dutch to put their setback to Iceland behind them and pick up the win at 5/10.
Belgium will also suffer the results of a gruelling season with a few big-name players in doubt with injury. Simon Mignolet is yet another Liverpool player supposedly unable to turn out for his national side, while Romelu Lukaku is also out with a hamstring complaint. In a surprising turn of events, the Belgian manager has opted to drop Adnan Januzaj due to a lack of match practice. Nevertheless, the Belgians are star-studded even without the services of the aforementioned. Cyprus are currently above Belgium in Group B but are one fixture to the good. They’ve played well against the bigger sides but I can’t see them holding off Belgium at home. Take Belgium to get the win.
Sunday 29 March
Greece are currently rooted to the bottom of Group F with only a single point to show for their troubles. Greece have struggled since the departure of coach Santos and another loss here could put an end to the Greek European campaign for good. They welcome back injury-riddled Papadopoulos hoping to tighten up an uncharacteristically leaky defence. Hungary remain strong in their push for qualification and should do enough not to lose. I’ll back a tame draw here which will heap even more pressure on the Greeks.
Republic of Ireland 29/20
Irish coach Martin O’Neill remains hopeful that both Aiden McCleary and Robbie Brady will be cleared to play in this crucial clash. Ireland, Scotland and Germany are level on seven points in Group D and a win here would help keep pace with the pack. Ireland managed to pick up a draw away to world champions Germany and will fancy their chances against Poland, who currently top the group. Poland themselves pulled off a fantastic result against Germany, winning 2-0 at home. It will be tough trip for Poland but they’re a resilient bunch of late and are tipped to hold Ireland to a draw, priced at 2/1.