Time for the Dutch to step up; France are on upset alert


Club matches may be on hiatus for the next 10 days, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some tasty football morsels to tuck into. Nick Miller takes a look at this week’s Euro qualifiers.

JUMP TO: Dutch need some courage | France limping into Reykjavik | All eyes on England | Can Ramsey inspire Wales? | Danes wary of cheesed Swiss | Kosovo needs some luck | Paint drying, grass growing, and Ireland | ESPN’s fearless predictions

THE WEEKEND’S BIG QUESTIONS

Will the Netherlands be able to deliver on their promise?

The last year or so has seen a nascent revival in the Dutch national team’s fortunes: From not qualifying for either of the last two major tournaments, they ripped into the Nations League and ultimately came second to Portugal in the summer. Were they back? Well, they were getting there, with an improving collection of talent that includes, in Virgil van Dijk and Matthijs de Ligt, probably the best central defensive pairing in international football.

But they’re not absolutely “back” just yet — in fact, they’re not even in the automatic qualification spots, three points behind Northern Ireland with a game in hand. They face the Northern Irish on Thursday, knowing that they have to win unless they want the last round of games to be very uncomfortable indeed. They have the security of a playoff place if they do slip up, but if they lose then they will be six points behind with three games remaining. The revival isn’t complete just yet.

Could Iceland upset the injury-ravaged world champions?

Another potential upset could come in Reykjavik, where a slightly depleted France travel to face a potentially very ticklish tie indeed. Without the injured Hugo Lloris, Kylian Mbappe and Paul Pogba, plus a host of other players carrying assorted ailments, France aren’t exactly going into this one in roaring good health.

Didier Deschamps’ side beat Iceland 4-0 in March, but since then have been far from convincing, and that shock defeat to Turkey in June means they go into this one in third place, three points ahead of Friday’s opponents, who will sniff a genuine chance to spring a surprise. If they do, that will introduce a large and hungry cat to a crowd of skittish pigeons, France will have to seek revenge against the Turks when they come to Paris on Monday, and it will make the last few games in Group H absolutely fascinating.

Will England have to deal with ugly racism again?

Depressing as it is to have to contemplate this prospect in 2019, there are fears that England’s black players could once again be subject to racist abuse when they travel to Sofia on Monday to face Bulgaria. It’s been a problem there before, and is anticipated to the extent that the players have already discussed what they would do if the situation arose.

Clearly, it’s an abysmal indictment of society that someone like Tammy Abraham should even be put in this position, but the Chelsea forward confirmed this week that in the event of racist abuse the England side would consider ignoring UEFA’s prescribed “three steps” policy — an appeal over the PA, then temporary suspension of the game, then abandonment — and just walk off the field.

Whatever happens, England will act as a collective. “It’s a team thing,” said Abraham. “Don’t isolate one person…It’s not just affecting one person, it’s affecting the team. If we decide that we don’t want to play this game because of what’s going on, we’ll come off as a team.”

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Trent Alexander-Arnold is taking things one game at a time for both England and Liverpool.

MAN TO WATCH

Aaron Ramsey: Who knows whether Wales would be in a stronger position to qualify for the finals if Ramsey had been fit. The Juventus midfielder has not been available for a single minute of their four games so far, so you can understand just how anxiously Welsh fans everywhere were waiting for reports on his fitness for their games against Slovakia and Croatia this weekend.

This time an abductor muscle problem has kept him out of the former, but he is training hard to be fit for the latter in Cardiff on Sunday. Four points from those two games would put Wales right back in the mix with two games to go after that.

Could Ramsey be the difference?

THE GAME YOU’RE NOT PLANNING TO WATCH … BUT SHOULD

Denmark vs. Switzerland: On the face of it, this might look like a moderately interesting game between two moderately good teams, but actually this could be a bit of a thriller. Certainly if it’s anything like the last time they faced each other in March: That time the Swiss were 3-0 ahead in the 84th minute, only for the Danes to roar back and score three times in nine minutes to clinch a 3-3 draw deep into injury-time, Henrik Dalsgaard swooping at the last.

The two sides have scored 25 goals between them in qualifying so far, so if you’re stuck for entertainment on Saturday, this is the one for you.

THE TEAM THAT NEEDS A BIT OF LUCK

Kosovo: It’s pretty remarkable that Kosovo, who weren’t even UEFA members when the last qualification period started, are in a very decent position to make it through this time.

Here they are, currently in third place in Group A, but this is one of those tricky rounds of games where they’re only playing once, and are simultaneously looking for a favour from England: Should Gareth Southgate’s side beat the Czech Republic on Friday night, and they beat Montenegro at home a few days later, then they will go into the final two games in pole position to go through automatically. Remarkable.

ONE THING THAT WILL DEFINITELY HAPPEN

Nobody will have much fun watching Ireland: In Mick McCarthy’s second spell in charge, the Republic of Ireland are a slightly curious proposition. They sit top of Group D, two points ahead of Denmark and three clear of Switzerland, who have a game in hand. This weekend they have two away games, against Georgia and the Swiss, and we simply cannot recommend watching either of them.

It’s perhaps not McCarthy’s fault, as his remit is very short-term — to get them to the finals before Stephen Kenny takes over next summer — and he has a relatively shallow pool of talent with which to carry out that task. But they’ve played five games and scored six goals, and they are nobody’s idea of a team that produces free-flowing football. Maybe just wait and check the scores afterwards for these ones.

SELECTED PREDICTIONS

Group A: Czech Republic 0-3 England; Bulgaria 1-4 England
Group B: Ukraine 1-2 Portugal
Group C: Netherlands 3-1 Northern Ireland; Estonia 1-3 Germany
Group D: Denmark 3-2 Switzerland; Switzerland 2-1 Ireland
Group E: Slovakia 1-1 Wales; Wales 2-1 Croatia
Group F: Sweden 1-3 Spain
Group G: Latvia 0-3 Poland; Slovenia 2-1 Austria
Group H: Iceland 2-2 France; France 3-0 Turkey
Group I: Belgium 7-0 San Marino; Russia 4-0 Scotland
Group J: Italy 3-0 Greece



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