Europe’s finest footballers have broken away from their club duties and come together to compete on the international stage.
A run of friendlies and Nations League clashes await from now until November 18, while Euro 2020’s final-four competitors will be belatedly discovered because of the backlog caused by coronavirus.
Here are three key issues that await:
EUROS BERTH WITHIN TOUCHING DISTANCE
Dreams will wither or thrive on Thursday night.
A protracted qualifying process has come down to a quartet of one-legged ‘finals’. Each tie has its own tale to tell.
Proud nations absent from this exalted stage for so long meet in Belgrade when star-studded Serbia battle wistful Scotland. The hosts have boasted many of the continent’s best talents, chief among them this time being Lazio powerhouse Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and evergreen Ajax forward Dusan Tadic, yet haven’t played at a Euros in any of this complicated nation’s guises in 20 years.
But at least they have figured at World Cups since then. The Scots last competed at a major tournament in World Cup 1998.
Manager Steve Clarke will again wrestle with how to fit elite left-backs Andy Robertson and Keiran Tierney into the same XI, plus Manchester United runner Scott McTominay. There will also be the temptation to thrust prolific Celtic striker Leigh Griffiths back into action for the first time since 2018, after form and personal problems.
Slovakia await the outcome of bold actions when they meet Northern Ireland. Manager Pavel Hapal was sacked a month out from the do-or-die clash at Windsor Park, with long-term assistant Stefan Tarkovic promoted to caretaker.
A potential swan-song is in store for record caps holder Marek Hamsik, arriving on the back of a miserable Chinese Super League-campaign under Rafael Benitez at Dalian Professional. Tarkovic’s recall of firebrand Vladimir Weiss, who fell out spectacularly with his predecessor, has raised eyebrows.
Minnows Georgia and North Macedonia have never come this close to qualification, to any competition, before. Entry for the latter’s 37-year-old veteran forward Goran Pandev would cap off a sterling career played out in Serie A, minus a short stint at Turkey’s Galatasaray, since 2001.
Hungary’s preparations for the decider with Iceland were derailed by boss Marco Rossi’s positive test for COVID-19 on Wednesday. Iceland will be determined to show their ‘Golden Generation’ can continue to sparkle with qualification into a third-successive major tournament, a substantial achievement for a nation whose population is estimated at 342,060.
MORATA’S MOMENT TO STRIKE OUT ON HIS OWN FOR SPAIN?
The David De Gea/Kepa Arrizabalaga conundrum has dominated much of Luis Enrique’s Spain comeback.
It, however, overshadowed another pressing issue – who will start up top at Euro 2020? This month’s recall for an in-form Alvaro Morata promises a definitive solution.
“I call on Morata because since he returned to Juventus, he is confident and his numbers indicate that,” said Enrique of a player justly rewarded for six goals in seven matches since his second stint at the Bianconeri began in September.
“You can see a different player with many aspects improved in attack and defence. It is always a pleasure to have Alvaro again.”
Robert Moreno handed the centre forward his last cap in November 2019, with Enrique issuing snubs during international football’s autumn resumption. The inability of a convincing alternative candidate to emerge from this period, plus Morata’s upturn since exiting Atletico Madrid, has combined to offer fresh opportunity.
Gerard Moreno is scoreless for Spain in 2020, despite career-best form at Villarreal. He has also picked up appearances out wide.
It is also more than a year since Leeds United’s Rodrigo pounced for Spain.
Sublime Real Sociedad winger Mikel Oyarzabal produced the only goal against Switzerland in an unfamiliar spot up top, yet didn’t convince there across 90 minutes.
Barcelona prodigy Ansu Fati is out until next year and his medium-term future, at least, appears to lie on the wings.
A return of 17 strikes from 33 caps reinforces Morata’s superior pedigree. So, too, his excellent assist for Real Betis midfielder Sergio Canales’ opener in Wednesday’s 1-1 friendly draw with the Netherlands.
Never mind Andrea Pirlo’s work rejuvenating a crestfallen figure who scored only 16 times from 44 club run-outs in 2019/20.
If this is translated into commanding performances in the Nations League versus Switzerland and Germany, then the debate should be over.
CORONAVIRUS CONTINUES TO CAST A SHADOW
A pandemic which continues to rage across the continent has, unsurprisingly, already enforced sizable influence on this window.
Positive tests have been in ample supply, with Italy tactician Roberto Mancini and Bosnia & Herzegovina striker Edin Dzeko among high-profile examples. The Italians were also forced to name an original 41-man squad with players from six clubs – Fiorentina, Genoa, Inter Milan, Lazio, Roma and Sassuolo – self-isolating because of COVID-19 cases in their squads, while local authorities there and in Germany are among those reluctant to allow players to travel.
Other prominent situations include Manchester United defender Victor Lindelof, meanwhile, being among five United Kingdom-based Sweden players unable to face Denmark because of a new coronavirus strain detected there among mink, with a knock-on effect being felt as Albania or Germany looks set to host England v Iceland because of the latter’s preceding clash with the Danes. An outbreak among Israel’s squad forced the cancellation of their friendly against Norway hours before kick-off.
Player welfare is another burning issue. Debate among Premier League heavyweights Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer about fixture pile-up, plus use of only three substitutes, has permeated into the international game.
With three games to follow in swift succession before these club managers get access back to their players, this debate is only set to be inflamed.
Germany, for example, trained with seven players and a goalkeeper for Monday’s opening session as Joachim Low attempted to fend off fatigue.
Perceived incapacity to protect players witnessed Inter CEO Giuseppe Marotta propose, to Gazzetta dello Sport, a boycott of internationals because of his belief the “situation is creating inequality”.
Coronavirus will impact football for the foreseeable future, regardless of apparent vaccine breakthroughs. Is the game doing enough to balance competing interests?