It’s judgement day for the home nations as the final two rounds of the European Championship qualifying matches are set to be played this weekend. Almost all of the groups still have at least one of the two places up for grabs, with a glimmer of hope this week for Northern Ireland and Wales in particular.
England play twice, and while qualification is all but guaranteed they are keen to get back to winning ways following a shock defeat in their most recent competitive match.
Here are six previews for the upcoming internationals:
England v Montenegro
The poor performance and 2-1 defeat in Czech Republic has put the brakes on the buoyant mood inside the England camp, but Gareth Southgate is highly unlikely to make the same mistakes again at Wembley. His 4-2-3-1 formation left the midfielders with too much ground to cover as Mason Mount poured forward, and so England will revert to the 4-3-3 that has served them well so far.
Montenegro are yet to win a game in this group and fell to a 5-1 defeat in the reverse fixture, which is why this is the perfect contest for Southgate to reassert his authority with a calm and controlled display. England will want to rack up the goals, and despite top goal-scorer Sterling left on the sidelines following an altercation with fellow team-mate and league rival Joe Gomez - a thumping home win is still the most likely outcome.
Northern Ireland v Netherlands
Having won their first four games in qualifying, Northern Ireland’s hopes have been dashed by back-to-back defeats against the two best teams in the group. And yet their 3-1 defeat in the Netherlands could have gone the other way; they led for long stretches, only falling late on when legs began to tire. On home turf, they are more likely to hold firm.
But there is one big problem. Michael O’Neill has joined Stoke City, and although he is set to stay on as Northern Ireland manager for their final two group games, the psychological shift is significant: just the fact he would leave at this juncture suggests he does not believe his team will qualify.
Turkey v Iceland
Iceland’s 4-2 defeat at Albania looks to be the most important game in Group H, because one of the big success stories of the 2018 World Cup may not qualify even if they win both of their remaining games. And that is far from guaranteed given Iceland have lost each of their last two on the road, reflecting an inability to score goals that is costing them dearly.
Iceland beat Turkey 2-1 at home in a tight encounter that could have swung either way, which means Turkey should be capable of holding their own – particularly since they have a 100% home record in the competition and are yet to concede. Even World Cup winners France were beaten 2-0 by the side in June.
Romania v Sweden
Just one point separates these two nations in Group F with two matches remaining, and Sweden are currently in pole position to qualify behind Spain. Their young side have been impressive recently, not only comfortably dispatching of the group’s weakest teams but drawing 1-1 with Spain in October.
They also beat Romania 2-1 in Sweden and could easily have won by a higher margin. Consequently, they should be able to see out the win this weekend. Romania are only so high in the group because they have secured maximum points against Malta and Faroe Islands.
Azerbaijan v Wales
Ordinarily this would be an easy win for Ryan Giggs’s side, and yet with the pressure so high – and Wales desperately struggling for form – this is a banana skin fixture. What’s more, Wales only won 2-1 in Cardiff in the reverse fixture despite dominating possession. Azerbaijan will once again sit deep and look to frustrate the Welsh, meaning a nervy and low-scoring 90 minutes.
Gareth Bale is of course the key player, his 84th minute goal making the difference last time the nations met, but Daniel James’s pace will be an important route around the narrow Azerbaijan defensive shell. With Wales playing badly in almost every game since Giggs took charge, failing to show any tactical cohesion, it seems probable they will not collect three points on Saturday.
Kosovo v England
The surprise package in the qualifying tournament scored three times at Wembley in a 5-3 loss, showing their quality on the counter-attack with some neat football that caught England’s defence flat footed. They are currently averaging two goals per game, and having won two and drawn the other of their home matches so far Kosovo could easily cause an upset in the final match.
They are closing in on qualification, too, whereas England will surely be qualified for Euro 2020 by this point. If Southgate experiments with his team selection, particularly in defence, then Kosovo can score a couple of goals and make this a very entertaining match.
*Odds subject to change