As the British nations once again get set to embark on another hopeful qualification campaign, this time for the World Cup 2018 in Russia, we look at how they may line up and fare in their opening group games.
SLOVAKIA VS ENGLAND
There may be a reason for optimism among England fans as yet another manager is all set to take charge in the form of Sam Allardyce. He is certainly under pressure as England have been flawless in qualification campaigns for the last decade.
With a trip to Slovakia, Allardyce’s journey with ‘The Three Lions’ doesn’t start with a particularly easy game either. The Slovaks have made a bit of noise in recent years as they boast individual quality such as Marik Hamsik, but they performed below expectations in the European Championships over the Summer winning only one of four games, a 2-1 win over Russia, before being knocked out convincingly by Germany 3-0.
However, the England aren’t strangers to the hosts. Indeed, they met at the Euros in a drab 0-0 affair, a game where we didn’t learn much about both sides.
England don’t have too much to fear though. As a unit, Allardyce’s men should have enough. For a manager whose main trait is his man-management skills, English fans should look forward to him getting the best out of the under-performers from the previous regime.
But the easy-on-the-eye football may suffer. Allardyce has brought Michail Antonio into the squad to add an aerial threat, and this could be a sign that England are transitioning away from a passing game into a more long-ball game in a bid to find the right formula at major tournaments once again.
It’s too early to change too much too soon, but you can expect more energetic performances than England put in at the Euros.
PREDICTION: Slovakia 1-3 England
MALTA VS SCOTLAND
Gordon Strachan is currently in the middle of transforming his Scotland squad. Several questions remain when it comes to selection decisions, and these will have to be decided before the Malta game if Scotland wants consistency.
Will 40-goal man Leigh Griffiths takeover from the out-of-form Steven Fletcher up front? Who will take the place of former captain and retired internationalist Scott Brown? Will Scotland continue to use the wide areas as their main source of attacks? These are all questions hovering over the Scots.
However, they should have no trouble against Malta on Saturday. Maltese manager Pietro Ghedin has already confirmed his side will “park the bus” against Strachan’s Scots, and this should be music to Strachan’s ears.
How the Scots line up will be an interesting sight. Strachan has enjoyed playing an attacking 4-4-1-1 formation throughout their Euro 2016 qualification campaign, and this is a formation that sticks to Scotland’s strengths. It gives them solid protection in front of the defence and allows the wide men to bomb forward and assist the attacking two.
There are gaps in the team with the retirement of Scott Brown and the injury doubts to Robert Snodgrass and Griffiths, but Strachan won’t be too concerned ahead of the Malta game, and Scotland should deal with business swiftly here.
PREDICTION: Malta 0-3 Scotland
WALES VS MOLDOVA
The only thing that will stop Chris Coleman’s men getting off to a good start in this campaign is pressure. Their success has raised expectations tenfold back in Wales, and with a generous group being drawn for them, they are being urged by expectant supporters to qualify again for the World Cup in Russia.
Despite the relative ease of the Moldova clash in Cardiff, there are several worries for Coleman ahead of the clash. Star-striker at the Euros, Hal Robson-Kanu, hasn’t played since the semi-final exit to Portugal. He has been selected for the squad to face Moldova, but without him fit and on form, Wales don’t really have a quality striker to lead the line.
They are also light in quality in the centre of midfield, with Johnny Williams and Aaron Ramsay unavailable due to injury. Goalkeeper Wayne Hennesey is also struggling to be fit, meaning the clash against Moldova could see as many as five fringe players take part.
This probably won’t affect the Wales approach to the game, such is their superior quality to Moldova. Coleman has tinkered with the formation many times since joining Wales and has terrific adaptability.
However, his lineup will probably be similar to that of when Wales beat Andorra 2-0 in Cardiff. A back four with advancing full-backs, along with an attacking midfield three in behind an attacking strike force trio. Wales won’t blow Andorra away, but they’ll get the job done professionally and soundly.
PREDICTION: Wales 3-0 Moldova
CZECH REPUBLIC VS NORTHERN IRELAND
Out of all of the British sides competing this weekend, Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland have the most difficult of match-ups. Again, expectations have raised in the Ulster nation after their qualification success to the Euros. However, asking the same this time around could be a step too far with the likes of Germany and the Czechs in their group.
Northern Ireland will give it a go with several fresh faces being brought into their squad. O’Neill was keen to reiterate that he picks his squad on current form, and has no old favourites, and this was proven as he brought in Dundee’s Michael Duffy, Ross County’s Liam Boyce, Burton Albion’s Tom Flanagan, and Hartlepool’s uncapped Trevor Carson.
It will be interesting to see if any of the new additions will make an appearance in Prague, but you should expect this game to be too big for any experimenting. Effectively, this is a game between two of the challengers for second place, and O’Neill will probably stick to the effective counter-attacking 4-5-1 formation that worked so well in their last qualification campaign.
They will look to get the ball to Jamie Ward and Stuart Dallas after soaking up pressure from the Czechs, and will look to provide Lafferty with service from the wide areas and attempt to stretch the Czech defence.
It’s difficult to see the Czech Republic not getting off to a good start here, as they’ll look to prove that they have more in the tank than what they showed at the Euros. They’ll attack with patient football from the outset and should get the points.
PREDICTION: Czech Republic 2-0 Northern Ireland