Yes, the title races are really getting interesting now. Yes, the relegation battles across Europe’s leagues are now full-blown wars. And yes, we’ve also reached the business end of the Champions League and Europa League.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that a week’s international break is a complete waste of time. Let’s not forget that in a few short months we’ve got Euro 2016 to look forward to...
1. Italy vs Spain (Thu March 24, 19:45)
Antonio Conte’s announcement that he’ll be leaving Italy after Euro 2016 might not have come as a complete surprise, but that didn’t stop it cheesing off many Azzurri fans. The reaction of the crowd towards their head coach at Udinese’s shiny new Dacia Arena will be interesting, but the football should be too.
It’s a classic clash between two of Europe’s heavyweight football nations, but not only that, a repeat of the Euro 2012 Final. Italy will be hoping things go a little more smoothly this time, having been stuffed 4-0 in Kiev.
Fans on either side will be excited by the prospect of seeing two players at opposite ends of their respective careers. Fiorentina’s Federico Bernardeschi looks to have a bright future ahead of him and could make his first senior Azzurri appearance, while Athletic Bilbao’s in-form Aritz Aduriz could earn only his second cap at the grand old age of 35.
2. Wales vs Northern Ireland (Thu March 24, 19:45)
Fans of both nations will still be pinching themselves when they’re reminded that this is an important Euro 2016 build-up game. They may not have met so regularly since the Home Championship was abolished in 1984, but this is still a historic clash – Wales edge the head-to-head with 15 wins to Northern Ireland’s 11, with seven games ending in a stalemate.
It’s been 26 years since Northern Ireland got a result in this fixture, though, and Michael O’Neill’s side will want to prove they’re not just going to France to make up the numbers. They’ll fancy their chances in Cardiff too, given that the main Welsh weapon Gareth Bale will be absent due to a combination of calf problems and a newborn child.
Delighted to welcome another beautiful baby daughter into our family today. Nava Valentina BaleMarch 22, 2016
Wales will also be without the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Andy King and James Collins – so the visitors will be looking to make a statement of intent in this all-British clash.
3. Netherlands vs France (Fri March 25, 19:45)
Dutch fans aren’t overly chuffed right now. A squad featuring the likes Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie humiliated their decorated footballing history by failing to qualify for the newly expanded Euros last year.
The Oranje will hope to win back some dignity against an impressively stocked French squad that will be under pressure to perform this summer when they host their first major tournament since World Cup glory in 1998.
Dimitri Payet and N’Golo Kante’s impressive Premier League form for West Ham and Leicester respectively has earned them call-ups to Didier Deschamps’ side, and Foxes midfielder Kante could make his international debut only two years on from plying his trade in Ligue 2.
While the Dutch will want to deliver a good performance against quality opposition, this friendly is also very valuable to the French. As hosts, les Bleus didn’t have to go through the testing ground of qualification and as a result haven’t played a competitive match since being knocked out of the 2014 World Cup by Germany.
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4. Ireland vs Switzerland (Fri March 25, 19:45)
The Irish did well to come through a tough qualifying group that included Germany, Poland and Scotland, and then a play-off against Bosnia-Herzegovina. However, they’ll have to keep that momentum going to stand a chance this summer after being drawn in a tough group featuring current world No.1s Belgium, perennial tournament contenders Italy and a Zlatan Ibrahimovic-led Sweden.
Jonathan Walters, the two-goal hero from the play-off win against Bosnia, will miss out through injury but Martin O’Neill has named a large squad brimming with experience.
Opponents Switzerland didn’t face the greatest challenge in qualifying, finishing comfortably in second behind England, and Ireland will want to pounce on any lack of sharpness. But the Swiss squad is packed with talent: Stoke’s Xherdan Shaqiri, Wolfsburg’s Ricardo Rodriguez and Borussia Monchengladbach enforcer Granit Xhaka to name a few.
Basel youngster Breel Embolo is a star on a rapid upward trajectory and the 19-year-old will be hungry to begin showing his talent on the international stage to put himself in the shop window this summer.
5. Germany vs England (Sat March 26, 19:45)
Meetings between these old enemies don’t need much selling as a spectacle – there’s a lot of pride and history at stake here. Germany won’t have forgotten the Michael Owen-inspired 5-1 humbling they received in Munich in 2001, while the memory of Frank Lampard’s disallowed strike in England’s 4-1 World Cup 2010 exit is still fresh.
History aside, there should be plenty to excite on the pitch too. Joe Hart and Raheem Sterling may be missing, but the inclusion of Leicester midfielder Danny Drinkwater has delighted Foxes fans. The 26-year-old could make his international debut, while team-mate Jamie Vardy searches for his first England goal.
The world champions’ build-up to this fixture hasn’t been quite so positive, with Wolfsburg striker Max Kruse being kicked out of the squad after an incident in a Berlin nightclub. It’s not as if his absence will leave Joachim Low bereft of options, though – the usual suspects like Thomas Muller, Marco Reus and Manuel Neuer will ensure a difficult test for Roy Hodgson’s men.
6. Austria vs Turkey (Tue March 29, 19:45)
Austria could well cause a stir in France this summer after a hugely impressive qualifying campaign was followed by a group stage draw that has left them a with a good chance of reaching the knockout stages – they’ll face Hungary, Iceland and Portugal in Group F.
Marcel Koller has built an extremely effective squad that features the likes of Bayern’s David Alaba, Spurs’ Kevin Wimmer, Leicester left-back Christian Fuchs and Stoke hotshot Marko Arnautovic. After winning nine out of 10 qualifying games (drawing the other) in a group that included Russia, Sweden and Montenegro, the Austrians will want to build momentum to ensure only their second European Championship outing is a memorable one.
They face an intriguing challenge in Turkey, a side that snuck into this summer’s showcase as the third-placed team with the most points. Although they’ve have had their problems in recent years, failing to reach the 2014 World Cup, head coach Fatih Terim can still call on talents like Barcelona’s Arda Turan and Bayer Leverkusen’s Hakan Calhanoglu to ask questions of the sturdy Austrian defence.
Croatia, Spain and the Czech Republic await in Group D for the Turks this summer and Terim will want to continue the kind of form that saw them go unbeaten in 10 matches during 2015.
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