Can Gareth Bale #SwitchOn? Will Cristiano Ronaldo break another record? We’ve got all the FIFA World Cup qualifiers talking points ahead of the latest round of games.
By Simon Ward, Content Editor
It only seems like yesterday when we were sweeping up the ticker tape from Euro 2020 as Italy were crowned champions. Well, forget that tournament (which is much, much easier to say if you’re an England fan), because all eyes are on the next one, as qualification for the FIFA World Cup hots up.
There are some massive games this week, all live on Sky Sports. Here are the essential talking points you need to know going into the first set of ties.
1. Gareth Bale’s Real Madrid turning point might help Wales
Finland v Wales, Wednesday 1 September, 4pm, Sky Sports Football/HD (CH 513/503)
There was a point when Gareth Bale’s golf handicap received more press in Madrid than his work on the football field – hence a loan to Spurs last season, followed by a relatively unassertive Euro 2020 by the Welsh captain’s standards. Well, having returned to his parent club, he’s up and running, ending his 578-day Real goal drought. Even the brutal Spanish media are singing his praises, hailing his “new lease of life”. Wales’ match against Finland may only be a friendly, but it would do Bale’s stock no harm putting in another commanding performance here. In his, ahem, own words: “It’s time… to #SwitchOn.”
2. Injuries may force Steve Clarke into a rethink
Denmark v Scotland, Wednesday 1 September, 6.45pm, Sky Sports Football/HD (CH 513/503)
How would you judge Scotland’s Euro 2020? The optimists would point at how they made eventual finalists England look very ordinary in their 0-0 group game. Meanwhile, the Graeme Sournesses would say – as he did say – that Scotland “made Croatia look like Brazil”. Either way, Steve Clarke’s men need to build on their first tournament since 1998. But with captain Andrew Robinson returning from injury and Kieran Tierney also a doubt, the Tartan Army’s defence needs some serious TLC. But with only one goal in Euro 2020, their attack also needs some work. Plenty to be done for in-form Southampton FC striker Che Adams against the unbeaten Danes.
3. Cristiano Ronaldo eyes all-time scoring record – and a final tournament?
Portugal v Republic of Ireland, Wednesday 1 September, 6.45pm, Sky Sports Premier League/HD (CH 512/502)
History beckons for Cristiano. Having already secured the world’s ugliest statue, the Juventus man has the chance to etch his name next to the all-time international goal scorer. Think of the players he’s overtaken – Messi, Pelé, and even the Republic’s own Robbie Keane (an impressive 68 goals, and 19th in the all-time list). Currently tied on 109 goals with Iran’s Ali Daei, Ronaldo – who has averaged 0.61 goals per match – just needs one against an Ireland side yet to take a single point in this qualification. Ronaldo will be 37 when the FIFA World Cup kicks off in Qatar next November. Few would bet against him making it.
4. Third time lucky for Louis van Gaal?
Norway v Netherlands, Wednesday 1 September, 6.45pm, Sky Sports Main Event/HD (CH 511/501)
By the standards they set, and the quality of their players, it was a disappointing Euro 2020 for the Netherlands, bowing out in the last 16 by way of the Czech Republic. It cost Frank de Boer his job. In his place comes Louis van Gaal, and no you don’t have déjà vu – he’s done the gig twice already. With the likes of Georginio Wijnaldum and the potential return of his former Liverpool teammate Virgil van Dijk, van Gaal will think his team of superstars will have the beating of any side. However, with the Orange Legion on the same points total as Norway, the gaffer’s third debut might not be so lucky after all.
5. Kylian Mbappe’s comeback story begins
France v Bosnia-Herzegovina, Wednesday 1 September, 6.45pm, Sky Sports Football/HD (CH 513/503) – red button
It seems frankly ridiculous to talk about Kylian Mbappe without resorting to wild superlatives like “genius” or “the perfect footballer”. But cast your minds back to a few months ago, and it wasn’t just Mbappe’s missed penalty which saw the French crash out of the tournament against Switzerland that was cause for concern. Rather, it was his whole performance as he failed to register a single tournament goal. That was all the more remarkable considering he came into the tournament following a 41-goal season for club and country. One would expect, however, this to be a blip in an otherwise illustrious career for the PSG man. Basically, beware, Bosnia-Herzegovina.
6. Trent Alexander-Arnold and a return to that debate
Hungary v England, Thursday 2 September, 6.45pm, Sky Sports Football/HD (CH 513/503) – red button
Baffling. That’s the only way you can describe the debate about Trent Alexander-Arnold and his place in England’s Euro 2020 squad (let alone the starting 11). In the end, an injury ruled him out of the tournament, so the conversation was closed as the young Liverpool defender watched at home with the rest of us as England reached the final. Despite England’s achievement, it would seem unlikely he won’t return to action, especially here in this tricky away tie against second-placed Hungary. One man certain to benefit from TAA’s crosses will be (at the time of writing) Tottenham’s Harry Kane.
7. Northern Ireland look to turn a very steep corner
Lithuania v Northern Ireland, Thursday 2 September, 6.45pm, Sky Sports Football/HD (CH 513/503)
It has not been a happy start to life in the hot seat for boss Ian Baraclough, only registering his first win as Northern Ireland gaffer at the 12th attempt, in a 3-0 friendly victory against Malta back in May. However, that was followed up by a 1-0 defeat against Ukraine in June. With that form, the Irish (currently on 1 point) have their work cut out to qualify from this group as Italy (on 9 points) and Switzerland (on 6) are starting to find some breathing room. But if they’re going to kick on, and with Switzerland next to play, it has to be against rock-bottom-of-the-group Lithuania.
8. Spain’s next generation look to fulfil their promise
Sweden v Spain, Thursday 2 September, 6.45pm, Sky Sports Premier League/HD (CH 512/502)
Spain started the last decade as the dominant force in world football, winning the 2010 FIFA World Cup – the first European team to win one outside of Europe – alongside back-to-back European Championships in 2008 and 2012. But it hasn’t been quite the same story since. This latest group of players is young, however, and they have time on their side. And with the experience of a semi-final finish at Euro 2020, plus a silver medal in Tokyo, expect to see the likes of Unai Simón (24), Mikel Oyarzabal (24), Pedri (18), Eric García (20), Pau Torres (24) and Dani Olmo (23) kick on here. Second-placed Sweden will give them a real test.
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