Good vibes from the electrifying World Cup 2018 look set to continue during the first international break since its completion.
Teams from across the globe have convened less than two months since France’s thrilling victory in Russia.
Now comes the chance for qualifiers and non-qualifiers to start a new cycle. Whether that be in Europe’s landmark Nations League, or during intriguing friendly clashes.
Here is our selection of weekend fixtures to look out for.
GERMANY V FRANCE
Thursday, Allianz Arena (22:45 UAE)
A blockbuster start is guaranteed in the inaugural Nations League as the last two World Cup winners meet in Munich.
Head coach Joachim Low must show he remains the man to lead Die Mannschaft after their embarrassing group-stage elimination. Manchester City winger Leroy Sane is back after his shock Russia snub, with an injection of youth also being provided by the likes of Paris Saint-Germain signing Thilo Kehrer and Bayer Leverkusen’s teenage playmaker Kai Havertz.
Champions Les Bleus have unsurprisingly retained all fit members of their victorious squad. Only goalkeepers Hugo Lloris and Steve Mandanda are injured.
PORTUGAL V CROATIA
Thursday, Estadio Algarve (22:45 UAE)
Reality now kicks in for Croatia after their dream run to defeat in World Cup 2018’s final.
Head coach Zlatko Dalic must begin plotting a way forward in this friendly after goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, defender Vedran Corluka and striker Mario Mandzukic all retired. Stars Ivan Rakitic, Andrej Kramaric, Ante Rebic and Dejan Lovren will also be missing in the Algarve.
Their absences mean opportunities for the likes of AEK Athens forward Marko Livaja, Gent goalkeeper Lovre Kalinic and Atalanta loanee Mario Pasalic.
For Portugal, Ballon d’Or holder Cristiano Ronaldo requested to be rested during this international break. Benfica centre-back Ruben Dias, Wolverhampton Wanderers midfielder Ruben Neves and RB Leipzig winger Bruma are all youngsters to watch.
ITALY V POLAND
Friday, (22:45 UAE)
It still seems surreal to think Italy missed out on the summer’s global festivities for the first time in 60 years.
Boss Roberto Mancini’s first competitive game, then, will act as a chance to show this national embarrassment was an anomaly – beginning with the charge to Euro 2020.
The Azzurri are bedding in under the new man. Big games are required from emerging Fiorentina forward Federico Chiesa, Chelsea conductor Jorginho and AC Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma.
A total of seven members of the Poland squad play in Serie A, guaranteeing a sense of familiarity in this Nations League clash. Attention for this first game for new tactician Jerzy Brzeczek will centre on Genoa marksman Krzysztof Piatek, whose rattled in a ridiculous seven goals in three competitive matches for his new Italian employers during 2018/19.
ARGENTINA V GUATEMALA
Friday, (07:00 UAE+1)
Argentina must begin to heal the wounds caused by their shambolic run in Russia without talisman Lionel Messi.
The Barcelona icon chose not to be selected for this international break that acts as the first practical test for interim supremo Lionel Scaloni. A friendly against Central America’s Guatemala heralds a new dawn that definitely will not contain retired former captain Javier Mascherano.
Of the new faces, a potential debut for productive Fiorentina striker Giovanni Simeone is a prospect to cherish.
ENGLAND V SPAIN
Saturday, Wembley Stadium (22:45 UAE)
Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions revolution is set to come under an exacting test when Luis Enrique kicks off his Spain reign.
England wildly exceeded expectations with a rejuvenating run to third place. Left-back Luke Shaw was not present then, but a run of games at Manchester United makes him the player to watch at Wembley in the Nations League.
Ex-Barcelona boss Enrique has quickly tried to stamp his name on the squad, initially omitting players who fell in the round of 16 to the hosts. He has big calls to make in net between United’s David De Gea and Chelsea’s world-record-buy Kepa Arrizabalaga, plus the shock call to omit former club charge Jordi Alba should lead to belated opportunity for another Chelsea employee in left-back Marcos Alonso.
Manchester United left-back Luke Shaw has been grilled about his response to manager Jose Mourinho’s criticisms.
Shaw, 23, has returned to the England squad for the first time since March 2017. This follows a spell mired by lasting damage from a serious leg break and a challenging relationship with his club boss.
“Of course, it was a tough two years, but I think mentally I’ve come out stronger, made me want to prove to him that I can do what sometimes he said I couldn’t,” Shaw said.
Watch his full answer below.
Gareth Southgate has effectively shut the door on the old guard as the England manager prepares to make his squad even younger.
Just eight weeks after their memorable World Cup campaign came to an end, the Three Lions will run out at Wembley on Saturday in their UEFA Nations League opener against Spain.
Southgate has plumped for a young squad, with 28-year-old Fabian Delph the oldest member following Adam Lallana’s withdrawal.
Injury has also seen Raheem Sterling leave the initial 23-man squad and the England manager’s decision not to name attacking replacements has raised eyebrows.
“Well, we think we’ve got a strong squad,” Southgate said
“We’re three games into a new season and we looked through a lot of different players over the last couple of years and decided that because of the way we want to play and the type of players we want to work with that there are some guys that didn’t fit that model.
“And so now we’re into a fresh cycle of probably not going back to players that have been in before and that we’ve had a good look at.
“So the next group that we start to look at are probably coming through our younger age groups.
“There’s a couple of others that are still young, that still have room for growth – the (Nathaniel) Chalobahs, Will Hughes, Ross Barkleys – but I don’t want to bring them in now, three days into the camp.
“I’d rather do that when we feel they’re ready, we feel that we’re looking at them on merit and also we really like some of the age groups below and I think they’re quite likely to be the guys that push.
“But when you’re promoting young players you’ve got to be really careful about how quickly you do that because you want to give them game time, you want to bring them in, have them train and adapt to training.”
Jamie Vardy and Gary Cahill have stepped away since the World Cup, while Ashley Young – the oldest member of the squad in Russia – has been usurped for club and country by Luke Shaw.
Southgate’s focus on youth does not appear to bode well for the likes of Ryan Bertrand, Joe Hart, Chris Smalling, Aaron Cresswell and Jake Livermore, nor Daniel Sturridge given his stated preference for young strikers.
It sounds like in-form Bournemouth frontman Callum Wilson, 26, has a chance to break through down the line, but 30-year-old Troy Deeney’s Watford performances are set to go without reward.
“I think Callum is another player we worked with in the under-21s, so we know a lot about Callum,” Southgate told Sky Sports.
“He’s certainly one we have to keep monitoring.
“I think Troy is a player who really suits the way that Watford play and I’m a big fan of his.
“But I think that we play slightly differently, and I think that, for me, the next forward players that I see that should be challenging are some of the younger ones.”
Uncapped Fulham goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli is the only reinforcement to the squad since meeting up on Monday, but Southgate suggests a positive outcome for the under-21s could change things.
Aidy Boothroyd’s Young Lions face Holland in an important European Championship qualifier on Thursday, while the senior team have a friendly against Switzerland in Leicester next Tuesday.
Lewis Cook, Tammy Abraham and Dominic Solanke – who trained with the senior team on Tuesday – have all won senior caps, while Ryan Sessegnon, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Ademola Lookman and James Maddison are also with the under-21s.
Southgate added: “All being well if the under-21s do well on Thursday they’re pretty much qualified and we can think about a couple of them.
“And for training our under-19s and under-20s are here, so it is a good opportunity for us to involve some of those younger players with our squad.”