UPDATE (Oct. 13): Odds have been released on both matches previewed below, with England 10/11 vs. Poland (13/5) and the draw 12/5, while Spain is 1/2 to beat France (5/1) with a 14/5 draw price.
It wasn’t long ago that we were concerned with what was the upcoming Euro 2012. But the international football calendar takes few breaks, and qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup are already well underway.
Tuesday marks another big qualifier day for UEFA, the last such until early spring, when matches resume full steam ahead on March 22. Safe to say, there will be a lot to chew on for supporters of these international sides through an upcoming five-month winter break.
As is usually the case in these qualifiers, only a handful of the clashes on each Matchday look truly compelling. And Tuesday is no different, with a few high-profile confrontations highlighting the card.
England still has plenty of fans who remember missing out on World Cups in 1974, ‘78 and ‘94, as well as Euro 2008, so they will take nothing for granted when Roy Hodgson takes his squad into Warsaw for a crucial Group Eight match vs. Poland at the National Stadium. Kickoff time in the states will be at 3:00 p.m. (ET).
England has made a so-so start to its 2014 campaign and cannot afford to drop points (and certainly can ill afford a loss) after last month’s disappointing 1-1 draw vs. the Ukraine at Wembley Stadium. Hodgson’s squad had kick-started its march to Brazil with a 5-0 romp past Moldova on September 7.
Indeed, England was relieved to snatch a point from the Ukraine match, as it needed a Frank Lampard spot-kick in the 86th minute to salvage a split of the spoils at Wembley. Hodgson’s crew was in a desperate situation at the time after Steven Gerrard had been sent off for his second yellow just a few minutes earlier.
Gerrard, however, will be eligible to return for the match at Poland after sitting out Friday’s qualifier vs. the minnows from San Marino. Some London-based observers were not surprised at the dull effort, as Hodgson was minus usual lineup fixtures John Terry, Ashley Cole and Rio Ferdinand against the Ukrainians.
Indeed, Terry’s recent international retirement is going to create a new look in the center of the England defense, as suggested by the fresh pairing of Joleon Lescott and Phil Jagielka on Friday vs. San Marino. How much Terry’s veteran presence and inspirational leadership could be missed remains to be seen.
Cole’s status also remains up in the air after the recent disciplinary action from the FA regarding an ill-advised Twitter comment. Cole was not on the field for Friday’s San Marino match, replaced at left-back by Everton’s Leighton Baines.
Moreover, midfield ace Lampard, the hero of the Ukrainian match, could miss the Poland battle due to knee problems. Wayne Rooney takes the captain’s armband in his place.
The Poles are looking to rebound from a disappointing show as co-hosts of the recently-completed Euros and have gotten off to a start similar to England’s, with a win and draw in its first two Group 8 matches. Poland continues to be led by its Bundesliga-based components, including Borussia Dortmund’s striker Robert Lewandowski and midfielder Jakub Blaszczykowski.
Meanwhile, another featured matchup on Friday takes place in Madrid, but not at the fabled Estadio Bernabeu of Real Madrid. Rather, it’s at Atletico’s Estadio Vicente Calderon, where the World Cup and Euro holders from Espana play host to France in a crucial Group Nine matchup. Kickoff will be at 3:00 p.m. (ET).
Indeed, Group Nine appears to be the “Group of Death” in the UEFA qualifiers (although England’s Group Eight looks pretty deep as well) thanks to powerhouses Spain and France, while Finland, Georgia and Belarus are capable of supplying the banana peels.
Just ask Spain, which has a target on its back these days and had to scrap for a 1-0 win at Georgia in the opening group match back on September 11. A late goal in the 86th minute by Valencia striker Roberto Soldado was the only score in a 1-0 win for La Furia Roja.
However, the visitors' persistence paid off when a short corner was worked to Cesc Fabregas and his low ball in was clinically swept home by Soldado in the 86th minute.
The Valencia striker's inclusion ahead of Fabregas and Fernando Torres turned out to be an inspired choice by coach Vicente del Bosque. Soldado was the only change to the side that started Spain's last competitive match (the Euro 2012 final victory over Italy).
Del Bosque has also replaced the injured defender Gerard Pique with Bayern Munich's Javi Martinez in the La Seleccion squad for the qualifiers vs. away to Belarus and at home to France.
Of course, Spain also saw off France by a 2-0 count in the quarterfinals of the recently-completed Euros, its midfield completely neutralizing Franck Ribery and the France engine room. Not sure if those dynamics have been altered significantly in the nearly five months since, as France enters this match with injury concerns in the center of the pitch.
With Arsenal's Abou Diaby and Lille's Rio Mavuba injured, Deschamps must find other ways to attempt to counter the Spanish midfield. Diaby is suffering from a thigh injury and is out of action, while Mavuba has knee problems and will be on the sidelines for between six and eight weeks.
The absences mean much of the burden will fall upon Newcastle's Yohan Cabaye, while Etienne Capoue, who scored against Belarus in September, Blaise Matuidi, who has impressed with PSG, and Maxime Gonalons, of Lyon, could also contends for key roles.
Since the Euros, France has replaced Laurent Blanc as head coach with another member of the golden generation, Didier Deschamps. But Les Bleus were so outclassed by Spain in June that it is hard to envision a much different result on Tuesday.