It's that time of year again - International Break!
Unfortunately all England get competitively is a home tie against Ukraine after a friendly against Slovakia (who ain't bad) - but the rest of the home nations and most of Europe are playing two real games
Well the Slovakia game should be pretty cut and dry, although they are the top of their group it is somewhat of an average group, and the Czechs are yet to play them - and it's only a friendly so who cares...
As for Ukraine - I'm imagining we'll be entirely focused on that, one single game with the intention of absolute victory - England are one of only three teams with a 100% win record and I expect that to hold up in what is only their second home game - it will surely cement England as at least second place, and the team is mostly fit: game no.5 = win no.5
While we're on Slovakia we might as well look at groupies Northern Ireland, currently second and with a fair chance of qualifying, two home ties against Poland and Slovenia will be crucial indicators of their chances this time round, they may even stand a chance of getting the automatic spot after holding the Czechs at home in this average group (though don't hold your breath, their away form is dire) - I'd go for a draw and a win for their two ties
Wales are next down in group 4 - with the pleasure of Germany and Russia for company, lucky them
Wales are pretty solid, but lack a goal threat - they will need to beat Finland to at least stand a chance, they can't hope for much from the German visit other than a 0-0, but with the two hardest away games done with (and lost) it is at least in their own hands, but I foresee a draw and a defeat, and consequently failure to progress
Then there's Ireland - in a very weak group, with Bulgaria the only real threat to the top two spots - we all know Italy are hardly worthy of their 'world champions' title, but they won't struggle with this group, there's a slim chance Ireland could pip them, but Italy invariably come through - should Ireland beat Bulgaria at home they will be very close to security, the trip to Italy won't mean much, all eyes on Bulgaria methinks - win and a loss
Then last, but not least - Scotland, surely worthy of a play-off place in a group that features Iceland, Norway and Macedonia (talk about mediocre, thank God for the play-off system this time)
The Netherlands are the only big boys and should walk this group, and their 100% record is testament to that. Meanwhile Scotland are not making it easy for themselves, held by Norway at home, losing to Macedonia away (although any England fan can tell you that's no easy game) - the win in Iceland was crucial and the size of this group means each game is more important here. Scotland are going to be flying by the seat of their pants once again I feel, except this time they have to be favourites for second, but it's going to be a hotchpotch group I think, if anything the Scots want the Dutch to win every single game (except against them obviously). I predict a defeat across the North Sea, and a crucial win at home.
All in all it's looking pretty good that we might get more than England into the cup itself, it will probably come down to a case of play-offs but you never know, Ireland and Scotland might draw each other...
England v Ukraine
NI v Poland (draw)
NI v Slovenia
Wales v Finland (draw)
Wales v Germany
Ireland v Bulgaria
Italy v Ireland
Netherlands v Scotland
Scotland v Iceland
**Other selected games of interest:
Spain v Turkey, then Turkey v Spain in the space of a week - who drew up that one? These two matches will pretty much decide group 5, unless Belgium cause a shock - you've got to go for the best team in the world for both, or certainly 4 points
Germany v Lichenstein - they beat them 6-0 away, bet on 'other' for this scoreline from a team who regularly thump in goals against minnows
Czech Rep v Slovakia - interesting if you live in Ulster, a Czech win would be preferable
Group 2 is even more mediocre than Group 9
Portugal v Sweden - Portugal's 1 win out of 4 has come courtesy of mighty Malta, anything other than a home win here will really screw them over as Sweden are big threats
Lithuania v France, France v Lithuania - another double header, I'm being highly optimistic about France going out, but this is a crucial pair of games for a seriously pathetic French team. Yes that's right, Serbia, Lithuania, Austria and Romania are giving France serious problems (if you can be anything serious after only 3 games), let's hope France's usual away form provides much amusement - it's a tight group
Australia v Uzbekistan - Over to Asia (?) for this one, Australia should walk it and will be pretty much guaranteed qualification after the frankly bizarre qualification route (two knock out rounds followed by two group rounds, followed by a last-place play-off, then another play-off). Hell, Australia and Japan both pretty much got a bye into the finals. Also, watch out for North Korea - we may well see them or New Zealand actually in the finals.