Euro 2020 qualifiers and international football: 10 things to look out for

Giggs’s credentials under the microscope, Berahino’s Burundi opportunity and another international debut for Rice

 Clockwise from top: Mick McCarthy, Saido Berahino with Burundi team-mates, Russia’s Aleksandr Golovin and Ryan Giggs, ahead of a big test for Wales. Photograph: Getty Images

1) Giggs faces more scrutiny after a 10-match free swing

Speaking to the Elis James Feast Of Football podcast last week, Ryan Giggs admitted Slovakia are his Wales side’s main rivals to qualify alongside Croatia from a group in which Hungary and and Azerbaijan are likely to do little more than make up the numbers. Despite having Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey on board, along with an influx of several exciting young prospects, their best performance under Giggs remains a 4-1 demolition of a dire Republic of Ireland side last September that perhaps gave fans unrealistic expectations of similar things to follow. They haven’t and Nations League defeats at homeand away against Denmark, along with friendly losses to Spain and Albania, mean the jury remains out on Giggs, who did mastermind another, more narrow win over the Irish. After 10 matches in charge, a period he told James he considered a kind of “free swing”, the important business for the Wales manager starts now. BG

2) Belgium will test Russia’s rawness on the road

All eyes will be on two of last summer’s headliners to see which of them can build on their impressive performances at the World Cup. Having retained Roberto Martínez and Stanislav Cherchesov as managers, respectively, Belgium and Russia will fancy their chances of going the distance at Euro 2020 but know that victory in Friday’s meeting in Brussels will determine the rest of the campaign. Belgium are likely to be without Romelu Lukaku after the Manchester United striker was sent for a scan on a foot injury but should have more than enough to beat a Russia side that missed out on top spot in their Nations League group to Sweden on goal difference. They travel to Kazakhstan next week but will need the likes of Denis Cheryshev and Aleksandr Golovin to rediscover their form to ensure a top-two spot in a group also containing Scotland and Cyprus. EA

3) A fourth international appearance for Rice on England debut?

The reigning Football Association of Ireland young player of the year will make his England debut against the Czech Republic on Friday if Gareth Southgate decides to give Declan Rice some game-time following his decision to switch his international allegiance. Having made three senior international appearances for the Irish, the 20-year-old midfielder must now justify his decision to nail his colours to the English mast or risk incurring the ridicule of those he abandoned in their hour of great need. While bitterness and seething resentment is very unbecoming of a nation, rest assured young Declan’s progress as an England international will be monitored with particular interest from both sides of the Irish sea. BG

Declan Rice
 Declan Rice will be scrutinised by English and Irish fans. Photograph: Matt West/BPI/Rex/Shutterstock

4) Groups D and G building to big climaxes in Africa

There is intrigue aplenty in Group G of Africa Cup of Nations qualifying, as all four countries go into the last round of games with a chance of securing a passage to Egypt. Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo both need wins, otherwise their respective opponents, Zimbabwe and Liberia, will advance instead. Meanwhile there is a high-stakes west African derby in Group D, where Togo need to win in Benin to pinch qualification from their neighbours. Benin have won all their home matches so far but are missing three key players through suspension, including Stéphane Sessègnon. They will look to Huddersfield’s Steve Mounié for goals, while Togo’s main threat could come from Floyd Ayité, though it would also be a good time for 
Emmanuel Adebayor to net his first goal since his latest return to the international fold. PD

5) Berahino can pick himself up with Burundi

Even by Saido Berahino’s standards, it’s not been the best few months. Slapped with a parking ticket as he appeared at a magistrates court in north London on 6 March to answer drink-driving charges, the Stoke striker was bailed until 15 May after claiming he had been a victim of an armed robbery and only drove his car under “duress of circumstance”. Berahino has not played for his club since the start of January, with Stoke understood to have considered sacking the former West Brom youth product who was named in Roy Hodgson’s England squad to face Slovakia in November 2014. Yet having made his international debut for the country of his birth and scoring in the 1-1 draw against Gabon in September, Burundi’s attempt to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in their history offers him the chance of some salvation on Saturday. Olivier Niyungeko’s side need only a point in Bujumbura to ensure they reach the finals in Egypt this summer, although Gabon’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang may have something to say about that with the Arsenal forward having yet to follow through on his threat to retire from international football. EA

6) A Scotland side that cannot afford complacency

Having won promotion to the second tier of the Nations League, guaranteed themselves a place among the third seeds for these qualifiers and earned a play-off semi-final place if they fail to make it through a group containing Belgium, Cyprus, Kazakhstan, Russia and San Marino, Scotland have every right to feel buoyed with optimism as they embark on this campaign. While their opening fixtures are both away from home, they should provide little difficulty. First is up a trip to Kazakhstan, ranked 117th in the Uefa standings, followed by a stop-off in San Marino, rock bottom at 211th, on the way home. With Scotland not having qualified for a major tournament since 1998, Alex McLeish has said it would be “the greatest thrill of my career” if he could guide his country to Euro 2020 and the subsequent World Cup in Qatar. With players of the calibre of Scott McTominay, Andrew Robertson, Kieran Tierney, Ryan Fraser and Callum McGregor at their disposal, Scotland ought to be bullish about their chances of qualifying for the Euros through the more orthodox route. But Scotland’s innate capacity for self-sabotage cannot be overstated. It is imperative that McLeish convinces his players to avoid complacency and view their play-off place as no more than a get-out-of-jail card they should not need to play. BG

Ryan Fraser
 Ryan Fraser is part of a promising Scotland crop. Photograph: Adam Davy/PA

7) Cameroon aim to avoid elimination

In November Cameroon were stripped of the hosting rights for this summer’s 
Africa Cup of Nations because of inadequate preparation and violent persecution in anglophone regions. That leaves Clarence Seedorf’s Indomitable Lions needing to qualify for a tournament for which they thought they had gained automatic admission. They will book their ticket if they avoid a home defeat to Comoros on Saturday, a showdown that will have extra edge because Comoros have called for Cameroon to be kicked out of the tournament rather than merely prevented from hosting it. Assuming their wish is not granted, on Saturday Comoros will have to surpass the result they achieved in September, when they held Cameroon to a 1-1 draw. Seedorf, meanwhile, says he has been working on set pieces as he seeks a solution to his team’s scoring problems – they have struck only two goals in five matches under the Dutchman and will miss their three best strikers through injury and suspension this weekend. It would be a historic upset if Comoros won in Yaoundé. PD

8) A more understanding home crowd for Mick McCarthy

Mick McCarthy’s first game upon his return to the Republic of Ireland helm is away to Gibraltar, after which he will have Georgia on his mind. Following a grim 2018 in which they won one out of nine internationals, McCarthy has said it is up to him “to get positive results and have people smiling again”. The manner in which he went about trying to do so at Ipswich led to a major falling-out with the club’s fans who did not appreciate what they saw as turgid tactics. Irish supporters are likely to be considerably more understanding considering the paucity of top class international players at their disposal, the fact they don’t have to watch their team play on a weekly basis and because however moribund Ireland may turn out to be, things cannot conceivably be any worse than the final year of the Martin O’Neill era. With Shane Long out through injury, Sean Maguire looks likely to start up front and win his fifth cap, with Ireland in dire need of someone resembling a prolific goalscorer. Yet to break his duck on the international stage, Maguire could ask for fewer easier opponents than Gibraltar in his quest to get off the mark before stiffer tests to come. BG

9) Another step in Berhalter’s USA rebuilding job

It took USA more than a year to find a new permanent head coach after their failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup but they now have strong leadership in Gregg Berhalter, who played for the USA before establishing his credentials as a a manager in Major League Soccer. He won his first two games in charge at the start of the year but had to do without many of his Europe-based players. He now has a full-strength squad featuring the likes of Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie – how they fare in their upcoming friendlies Ecuador and Chile will give a good idea of Berhalter’s foundations as he starts his rebuild. TL

 Gregg Berhalter has a strong squad to choose from for USA’s friendlies with Ecuador and Chile. Photograph: Adam Hunger/AP

10) A perfect 12 from Northern Ireland before bigger tests

Drawn in a group with Germany and the Netherlands and without the safety net of a Nations League play-off place, Northern Ireland have yet to play a game but are already faced with an Everest to climb to qualify for the European Championships. Indeed, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that anything less than six points against Estonia and Belarus would render a difficult task nigh-on impossible. Northern Ireland have a proud history of pulling off shock results against top class opposition, particularly at home, but they are equally as capable of losing against teams who are nowhere near as troublesome. They cannot afford any slip-ups of that kind here – with games to come against Belarus and Estonia in June, they need to bank 12 points out of 12 before facing either the Germans or the Dutch. BG

The Guardian