It hasn’t even been two months since Andres Iniesta’s golaso in Johannesburg yet meaningful international football returns with Friday’s slate of Euro 2012 qualifiers. No doubt Spanish supporters are looking forward to the defence of their 2008 title but can English fans summon the passion after their bummer summer? The four home nations plus Ireland begin European qualification against a mix of minnows and middle-of-the-pack squads. Wouldn’t anchovy be a more apt term than minnow? Often times we don’t want to eat anchovies, just as we often don’t care to watch our boys go out for a jog against an also-ran, but we know deep down that eating anchovies is good for us, just as doing well against the smaller nations builds confidence and form for more important matches. Five matches to keep an eye on this Friday.
Republic of Ireland at Armenia, 11am ET, ESPN3.com, Republican Stadium, Yerevan
Ireland play their first meaningful match since Thierry Henry’s crime against humanity. Dreams of being drawn as the 33rd nation for this past summer’s World Cup dashed, the Irish look to now qualify for an international tournament for the first time since 2002. While Russia and Slovakia loom with talent such as Shay Given at keeper, John O’Shea at right back and a midfield of Glenn Whelan possibly partnered with rocket-footed Darron Gibson the Irish should have their sights set on advancement. Armenia are typical minnows, although they have enjoyed some good results at home, defeating Belgium last year, drawing with Portugal in 2007 and well, only losing to Spain 2-1 last year. Friday’s match could see the full debut of former Real Salt Lake (still embarrassing to write that name) forward Yura Movsisyan. Movsisyan has lived in the United States since age 14, but chose to play immediate first-team football for Armenia rather than fight for a potential place under Bob Bradley.
Bulgaria at England, 3pm ET, Fox Soccer Channel, Wembley Stadium, London
Advancement from a group featuring the Bulgarians, the Welsh, the Montenegrans and the Swiss should be assured even for an English side at a crossroads. No Frank Lampard means no free kicks menacing fans seated in the upper echelons of Wembley. John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Peter Crouch will also miss out. Wayne Rooney will be there, searching for his first goal for England since his icing on the cake in the 5-1 cathartic thrashing of Croatia a year ago. He won’t be seeing his Man United counterpart across the pitch as Dimitar Berbatov has retired from international football. While the inclusion of Adam Johnson and Theo Walcott will give the team more pace and more threats, Don Fabio will have to forge a defence from the likes of Michael Dawon and Matthew Upson. And while few keepers outside Gianluigi Buffon are crucial to their country’s success, England have yet to settle on a #1 for qualification. This will be the first Euro qualifier at Wembley since Steve McClaren’s last stand; rain is not in the forecast for Friday.
Northern Ireland at Slovenia, 2:45pm ET, no TV or online in US. Stadion Ljudski vrt, Maribor
When last we saw Slovenia they were sluggishly surrendering against England in their sharp mountain-range shirts. Gray-haired defender Stephen Craigan will anchor a Northern Ireland side that split their matches with Slovenia in qualifying for this past year’s World Cup. Jonny Evans should be beaming with pride as his younger brother Corry has been shortlisted for the match. The Ulstermen seek their first-ever European Championship qualification but are up against it in a group that includes Italy and Serbia. Crucial points could come from matches against their neighbours to the far north, the Faroe Islands.
Scotland at Lithuania, 2:15pm ET, no TV or online in US., S. Darius and S. Gir?nas Stadium, Kaunas
Lithuania has produced many fine athletes. Unfortunately, they’ve all played basketball. However, Lithuania enter Friday’s match riding the wave of their triumph in the esteemed Baltic Cup over Estonia and Latvia. While Scotland narrowly missed out on qualification for Euro 08, their campaign for South Africa was dismal. George Burley was rightfully sacked, but new gaffer Craig Levein has already suffered an embarrassing defeat in only his second game in charge, 3-nil to Sweden three weeks ago. The Tartan Army will hope grinning Kenny Miller, with five strikes in three matches, can find the same form abroad. Scotland will need the confidence of early results in a fairly easy group that contains only one real power in the tiki-taka horde of Spain.
Wales at Montenegro, 1:30pm ET., no TV or online in US, Podgorica Stadium, Podgorica
Montenegro, as an independent nation, is only four years old and only played its first international match in 2007, a 2-1 victory over Hungary. Their talented young star, Stevan Jovetic of Fiorentina, suffered a brutal knee injury in early August and will miss the rest of the year. This will be their first attempt at Euro qualification and a rematch of their 2-1 victory over the Welsh a year ago. Craig Bellamy, playing at home for Cardiff City, will feature in the attack. All eyes will be on Gareth Bale, who has set this young season ablaze with his scintillating start for Spurs. The most anticipated games in the group will be those against England, on March 26, 2011 in Cardiff and on September 6, 2011 in London. Gavin and Stacey will be a house divided.
Other games on ESPN3.com this weekend:
- Kazakhstan v Turkey, Noon
- Andorra v Russia, 12:30pm
- Faroe Islands v Serbia, 1pm
- Sweden v Hungary, 2pm
- Slovakia v Macedonia, 2:30pm
- Estonia v Italy, 2:30pm
- Belgium v Germany, 2:45pm
- Greece v Georgia, 2:45pm
- San Marino v Holland, 2:45pm
- Liechtenstein v Spain, 2:45pm
- France v Belarus, 3pm
- Portugal v Cyprus, 3:45pm