We’ve got a break from domestic football for a couple of weeks. But that doesn’t mean there’s any shortage of football action, with internationals taking centre stage all around the world.
The Euro 2020 qualifiers will cross their half-way point over the coming weekend, with some of the groups already starting to take shape, and the home nations enjoying mixed fortunes so far. Let’s have a recap…
The Home Nations — A Progress Report
Northern Ireland have done all they could so far in beating both Belarus and Estonia home and away to top Group C with a maximum twelve points. However, that tally is unlikely to be enough to qualify from a group including Germany and the Netherlands — unless Michael O’Neill’s men can add to it by taking some points off the European powerhouses.
They have a friendly with Luxembourg to prepare for Monday’s arrival of Germany to Windsor Park, where they will be looking to earn at least a point.
Republic of Ireland also top their group — but, like their Irish neighbours, their three wins have all come against the minnows of their group: Gibraltar and Georgia in this case. While their 1-1 draw in Denmark has put one big game behind them, it is likely to be their fixtures against Switzerland that will determine their success.
Scoring goals is the Irish’s biggest concern, with their uninspired 2-0 home win over Gibraltar last time out being the first time they have scored more than one goal in their last eleven competitive games.
Wales began their campaign with an encouraging 1-0 win over Slovakia, but subsequent defeats in Croatia and Hungary have left them languishing behind all three of those nations.
The Welsh have only one qualifying game during this break, at home to lowly Azerbaijan. While it should produce a comfortable win (defeat would be unthinkable), it is the return games against those top three nations that will determine whether they reach the finals.
Scotland have so far done what Scotland usually do — namely, make things very difficult for themselves.
A disastrous 3-0 loss in Kazakhstan kicked off their campaign and cost Alex McLeish his job as manager, and although his replacement Steve Clarke enjoyed unconvincing wins over San Marino (2-0) and Cyprus (2-1, thanks to a late winner), their 3-0 loss in Brussels showed him he has a mountain to climb to finish above both Belgium and Russia to qualify.
That mountain climb starts this weekend, when anything but victory in home games against both countries on Friday and Monday will surely signal the end of Scotland’s qualification ambitions.
England are the last of the home nations to play this week, with home ties against Bulgaria and Kosovo to negotiate on Saturday and Tuesday respectively. Head coach Gareth Southgate will know that two successes in these two winnable games will put his side firmly in the driving seat of Group A at the qualification half-way stage.
England v Bulgaria – A Preview
- Match: England v Bulgaria
- Venue: Wembley Stadium
- Kick-off: Saturday 7th September @ 5.00pm
Under Southgate’s enlightened leadership, England have transformed into one of Europe’s most formidable outfits, thanks to a successful (albeit ultimately fruitless) World Cup campaign, followed by their progress to the final stages of the Nations League at the expense of Croatia and Spain.
England’s fortunes took a dip in those finals when losing their semi-final 3-1 after extra-time to the Netherlands, although they did at least claim (a somewhat meaningless) third place by winning a penalty shoot-out against Switzerland following a goalless draw.
Prior to that, however, England had thrown down a statement of intent in their Euro 2020 qualifying group by thrashing the Czech Republic 5-0 at Wembley, and then bouncing back after conceding an early goal in Montenegro to beat their hosts by another emphatic 5-1 scoreline.
Southgate has brought in plenty of fresh faces for the forthcoming games, continuing his policy of blooding new talent in preparation for future campaigns. In come defenders Tyrone Mings and Aaron Wan-Bissaka for their first taste of senior international football, while Mason Mount and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are also included.
Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling shared six of England’s ten goals in their opening two qualifiers, and they will continue to provide England’s biggest threat upfront. They might well benefit from the only newcomer in with a real chance of making the starting line-up, Leicester’s midfielder, James Maddison, as England look for a creative playmaker capable of unlocking deep-lying defences.
Since failing to reach the Russia World Cup Finals, Bulgaria seemed to have turned a corner when they won the first three games of their Nations League campaign a year ago.
Sadly, their seven subsequent games have not produced a win, with four straight 1-1 draws preceding two Euro qualifying losses in June. The Bulgarians have had a long time to dwell on that last defeat in June, when their morale reached rock bottom courtesy of a 3-2 home defeat to UEFA newcomers Kosovo.
There have only been eight previous meetings between Bulgaria and England, with England yet to experience defeat (5 wins and 3 draws). The Bulgarians have breached the English defeat just once in those eight attempts, when they drew 1-1 in 1999, while their last two encounters in the 2012 Euro qualifiers both ended in convincing England successes (4-0 and 3-0).
Unsurprisingly, England are firm favourites, with the best available price on a home win hovering around an unappealing 1/12.
The odds on Bulgaria producing a shock are fluctuating anywhere between 16/1 and 33/1, and even a draw reaching a whopping 14/1.
That possibly leaves the best value to be found in the handicaps markets, where the even-money line sits between England -2.75 and Bulgaria +2.50 AH.
The goals markets might also attract some attention, and if England perform like they did in their first two qualifiers, then Over 3.5 Goals could be a popular bet.