This weekend international football takes centre stage again, as the Home Nations continue their respective campaigns to reach the European Championship tournament being held in France next year.
But first, let’s talk about those Fifa world rankings. They made news again this week as Wales found themselves ranked 9th, one place above England in 10th and, somewhat hilariously, above reigning European champions Spain (11th) and World Cup semi-finalists the Netherlands (12th). Furthermore Belgium – a team of great individuals who don’t necessarily make a great team – are still ranked second despite defeat to Wales in their last match and Romania, with whom Northern Ireland drew 0-0 in a damp squib last time out, are somehow up there in 7th.
Manager Chris Coleman has sensibly moved to reiterate that the rankings are basically meaningless (useful only for bragging rights among fans perhaps, and to make group draws more practical) and their real task as a team is to qualify for Euro 2016 next year – should they fail to do that from their current position, then they’ll be classed as failures regardless and no hypothetical ranking is going to be consolation for anyone in that case. I have nothing to add to that opinion other than to affirm its obviousness.
Tonight Wales (somewhat appropriately, considering said ranking) spearhead the Home Nations’ challenge as they travel to face Cyprus. Win, and they’ll be within touching distance of the finals. I’ve already said I think they’ll get there comfortably from this point and that task should go one more step towards completion this evening. Prediction: Cyprus 1-3 Wales
Moving on to Friday, Scotland and Northern Ireland take centre stage to play their part. Both of their fixtures, the former against Georgia and the latter against the Faroe Islands, are quite simply must-win if they want to sustain their challenge. Unfortunately both matches also represent potential banana skins. Scotland know this all too well as it was a defeat to Georgia in 2007 that single-handedly derailed their Euro 2008 qualifying campaign when they were in a similar position (indeed it was, at that point, even better) to the one they face now. However, Georgia themselves have been in an almighty slump since then – they’ve only won four matches between that win and now – and I don’t see Scotland slipping up this time. Prediction: Georgia 0-2 Scotland
Being a Northern Irish native, I of course would like to see them qualify most of all. I also harbour unpleasant memories of slipping up against supposed group ‘whipping boys’ in previous qualifying campaigns, most recently an embarrassing defeat to Luxembourg (in what was their first home win since 1972) and a draw with none other than the Faroe Islands themselves before that. So I’m not taking this game for granted, but I have to say I still fancy my home team to come out winners. The Faroe Islands have already won two games in this qualifying campaign, but those were against Greece – who seem to have fallen off the face of the earth – and I think they were rather deceptive results. Prediction: Faroe Islands 1-4 Northern Ireland
On Saturday, England play San Marino in perhaps the least interesting of the weekend’s fixtures. The English have arguably the easiest group and San Marino are frankly their easiest opponents. They’ll obviously make it seven wins out of seven, but as per usual I don’t think we’ll see truly ‘vintage’ England – pundits will still be using phrases like ‘workman-like performance’ and ‘efficient style of play’ by the end of the weekend… Yawn. Prediction: San Marino 0-5 England
Moving swiftly on, the action picks up again on Sunday with Wales at home to Israel. This could be the match where Wales effectively seal their place at Euro 2016 so expect a bit of a party atmosphere, providing they don’t slip up against Cyprus beforehand. Regardless, with the kind of form Wales have been in recently, beating Belgium last match day, one wouldn’t want to bet against them at home. Prediction: Wales 2-1 Israel
Monday sees two of the biggest games yet: Scotland vs Germany and Northern Ireland vs Hungary, both at home, both vital in determining where each team will finish in the group. Being at home, the Scots will no doubt fancy their chances against World champions Germany, especially since the latter hasn’t been in sparkling form during this qualifying campaign (having said that, they’re still on course to finish in the top 2). I have a feeling Scotland might just get something from this game, and I have a feeling Germany won’t be too displeased to get out of Scotland with a point either. Prediction: Scotland 1-1 Germany
Northern Ireland play the team against whom this qualifying campaign started in such surprising and glorious fashion. The Hungary team on Monday I feel will be a different one from then, their form having improved to the point where they themselves come to Belfast knowing a win could help them steal that coveted top 2 spot from under our noses. This is going to be a tough fixture to get through unscathed, no doubts there, and it is even bigger than the overhyped Romania match earlier in the summer. Kyle Lafferty will need to be more clinical in front of goal than he was in that game if we’re to be celebrating come Monday evening. Frankly I’d probably be content with a draw at this point (providing the Faroe Islands result pans out accurately too…) as it would mean retaining that top 2 spot going into the remaining two games. Prediction: Northern Ireland 2-2 Hungary
Finally, England host Switzerland on Tuesday evening in a slightly more interesting – if no less routine – fixture for the British media to try and excite themselves over. I do hope the Swiss come with the intention of taking it to England in an effort to make the group look less predictable – they were, after all, portrayed as the biggest threat in this group – but in the end I expect England to still have enough in a fairly typical home game. Hopefully we’ll get to see some new faces rather than watching Wayne Rooney run around half the pitch and ultimately praised for ‘working hard’. Prediction: England 3-1 Switzerland