International football: 10 things to look out for in World Cup 2018 qualifying

Ramsey’s Wales return, Yiadom’s controversial Ghana inclusion, Southgate and Strachan heading in opposite directions and a fairytale comeback for Falcao

1) Southgate and Strachan under pressure

Gareth Southgate is at the beginning, Gordon Strachan could be approaching
the end. But both managers are under pressure before Friday night’s
qualifier at Wembley. While Southgate has shown that he is not afraid to
make big calls, dropping Wayne Rooney for the fortunate goalless draw in
Slovenia, England’s caretaker oversaw underwhelming performances in his
first two matches and would not be seen as an inspiring permanent appointment
if his team fails to convince against Scotland. The return of Harry Kane
and Raheem Sterling should enhance England’s threat, however, and it is
Strachan who has bigger problems. Robert Snodgrass has been in fine form
for Hull City and the jinking winger could give England’s defence plenty to
think about, yet Strachan’s stock is perilously low after last month’s
defeat to Slovakia
and defeat in this match would surely be the final straw. JS

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2) Ramsey’s return a welcome boost for Wales

A little bit of the air escaped the Welsh balloon after last month’s home
draw with Georgia, a result that leaves the Euro 2016 semi-finalists
slightly off the pace in Group D. Gareth Bale gave them the lead, because
scoring in every game is what he does now, but Georgia fought back to claim
a point and could have departed with all three. The way the visitors cut
through the Welsh midfield was a concern for Chris Coleman. The manager
will be relieved to have Aaron Ramsey available again, though. While Bale
is the gamechanger, Ramsey is so often the driving force for Wales. Along
with Joe Allen, who has flourished for Stoke, the Arsenal midfielder can
help Wales dominate against Serbia on Friday night. JS

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3) Argentina relying on Messi again but watch out for Neymar

Having inspired Barcelona to victory against Sevilla, the next task on Leo
Messi’s list is to work his magic for Argentina. They badly missed him when
he was injured last month, sliding into sixth place in South American
qualifying after drawing in Peru and losing at home to Paraguay. The defeat
to Paraguay was laced with farce, generous finishing and a penalty miss
from Sergio Agüero turning up the heat on Argentina before Thursday night’s match against Brazil. Messi’s return to fitness has lifted Argentinian spirits. The best player in the world could beat Brazil on his own if he is in the mood. One potential problem with that theory, however, is that Neymar could do the same to Argentina. Messi’s Barcelona team-mate has been in excellent goalscoring form for Brazil and is one goal away from his 50th for his country. JS

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Argentina’s Lionel Messi.
Argentina’s Lionel Messi. Photograph: Douglas Magno/AFP/Getty Images

4) Griezmann and Gameiro should get nod for France

Kevin Gameiro ridiculed his five-year absence from the France team by
making a decisive return last month, scoring twice against Bulgaria and
immediately showing a thrillingly sharp understanding with Antoine
Griezmann. France followed that up with a 1-0 win in Holland and on Friday
they could take sole lead of Group A by winning at home to Sweden, with whom they are currently level at the top with an identical points tally and
goal difference after three games. Sweden have been weakened by injuries
both in defence and attack, as their first-choice full-backs, Martin Olsson
and Mikael Lustig, will be missing and so will the striker Marcus Berg. Olivier
Giroud is fit enough to return to the French squad but Didier Deschamps
need look no further than Griezmann and Gameiro for his starting attack. PD

Kompany pulls out shortly before Belgium’s draw in Holland

France’s Kevin Gameiro, left, and Antoine Griezmann will reprise their thrilling partnership against Sweden.
France’s Kevin Gameiro, left, and Antoine Griezmann will reprise their thrilling partnership against Sweden. Photograph: Michel Euler/AP

5) Republic of Ireland’s Austria test sure to intrigue

Although he occasionally lapses into negativity, Martin O’Neill’s main contribution to the Republic of Ireland has been to instil a belief that they can get results anywhere, against anyone, somehow. His team are not often fluent and not often solid, yet they are devilishly hard to beat and can sometimes force a win when needed. Predictions for their game against Austria on Saturday have to be as uncertain as the predictions of all their big games in recent years because Ireland could be trounced, especially given the slew of injuries, or they could keep themselves very much in the qualification hunt thanks to their spirit and flashes of class from the likes of Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick, Wes Hoolahan and maybe also two newcomers, Harry Arter, who should make his competitive debut in Vienna, and Daryl Horgan, the Dundalk winger who has the ability to make a big impact on his first appearance for his country, whether from the start or off the bench. PD

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6) A crucial match for Northern Ireland

With Germany looking untouchable, the intrigue in Group C lies in the race
to qualify for the play-offs. Opening their campaign with a 1-0 away win
against San Marino did not suggest that Azerbaijan would feature in that
conversation, but they have surprisingly risen to second place after
picking up seven points from their first three matches. They scored early
and held on for another 1-0 win when they hosted Norway last month and
demonstrated their defensive resilience by leaving the Czech Republic with
a precious draw three days later. Yet to concede a goal, it seems that they
have worked out how to frustrate their opponents and Northern Ireland will
need to be patient when Azerbaijan visit Windsor Park on Friday night.
Defeat would see Michael O’Neill’s side fall six points behind the group’s
surprise package. JS

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7) Will Ghana’s wishes be granted in land of the Pharaohs?

Ghana are already playing catchup in the unforgiving last group stage of African qualification. Their scoreless home draw with Uganda in their opening match raised the stakes of this Sunday’s clash with Egypt, who lead the group thanks to their victory in Congo. André Ayew makes a timely return for the Black Stars but they will be still without the injured Kwadwo Asamoah, and Asamoah Gyan is also absent. Egypt’s goalkeeper, Essan El-Hadary, made no effort to underplay the importance of the match, declaring that a victory for his team, which would leave them five points clear of the country they see as their main rivals, would be “the gateway to the World Cup”. What a context, then, for Barnsley’s Andy Yiadom to make his international debut. The London-born defender received his Ghanaian passport a few days ago and has a chance of going straight into Avram Grant’s side for the duel in Alexandria. A good pep-talk would do him a power of good. It doesn’t sound like he’ll be getting one from the vice-president of Ghana’s FA. “I hadn’t heard of any player called Andy Yiadom until Avram Grant added to his list,” George Afriye told Ghanaian radio this week. “If I were to be the coach of the Black Stars, instead of Yiadom, I would’ve preferred either Samuel Inkoom, Godfred Saka of Aduana Stars or Yaw Frimpong of TP Mazembe for the right-back position because they are tried and tested. However, I’m not in that position to select players for the team so I will have to go with Grant’s decision.” PD

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Andre Ayew will make a timely return for Ghana against Egypt with Avram Grant’s side in danger of missing out on Russia 2018.
Andre Ayew will make a timely return for Ghana against Egypt with Avram Grant’s side in danger of missing out on Russia 2018. Photograph: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images

8) Revenge will be sweet in Group I

Croatia and Iceland have both continued to impress since the Euros, the
former shrugging off the disappointment of their tepid defeat to Portugal
in the last 16,
the latter showing that their run to the last eight was no
fluke. Goal difference separates them at the top of Group I after three
qualifiers and the stakes will be high when they meet on Saturday night.
Croatia are formidable at home, possess enviable individual talent and will
start as favourites, but Iceland remain compact, organised and efficient at
both ends of the pitch. This is a tough match to call and an added
incentive for Iceland is that it was Croatia who dashed their hopes of
qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, edging a tight play-off. JS

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Croatia's Ivan Perisic
Ivan Perisic is likely to lineup for Croatia against Iceland, who they beat to reach the 2014 World Cup. Photograph: Paul Gilham/Getty Images

9) Will Falcao further dent Chile’s fortunes?

Chile and Peru got a major break at the start of this month when Bolivia
were found to have fielded an ineligible player, Nelson Cabrera, in two
matches in the South American qualifying league, a 2-0 win over Peru and
0-0 draw with Chile. Fifa quashed those results and awarded 3-0 victories
to Peru and Chile instead. That lifted Chile from seventh to fifth in the
table, one point below the fourth automatic qualification spot, which is
currently occupied by Colombia. And on Thursday Colombia host Chile. Less
encouragingly for Chile, Alexis Sánchez will miss that match after suffering a “low-grade muscle injury” during training this week and he may also miss next week’s home game against Uruguay. Colombia, on the other hand, are in the happy position of being able to reward Radamel Falcao’s long-awaited return to form with a recall to the national team. The fairytale scenario is for Falcao to score against either Chile or next week’s opponent’s Argentina, the other team who are currently just a point below Colombia. PD

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10) Heavyweights meet in Nigeria

There is little room for error in Group B in African qualifying. Nigeria
are top after the first round of matches, Algeria and Cameroon are level on
one point apiece, and Zambia are bottom. Picking a winner is far from
straightforward, although we might get a better idea of the group’s
strongest side when Nigeria host Algeria on Saturday evening. Nigeria will
look to their emerging stars. Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho were on the
scoresheet when they beat Zambia 2-1. But Algeria’s threat will not be
underestimated and Nigeria’s back four is unlikely to relish marking Yacine
Brahimi, Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani. JS

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Paul Doyle and Jacob Steinberg

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