International weekends are often a bit of a downer. But at least this weekend we’ve got some pretty decent, competitive fixtures to look forward to, rather than the pointless friendly games that regularly punctuate the domestic calendar.
It helps too when we’re at the final knockings of a World Cup qualifying campaign. Some nations have already qualified, but for the majority, their fate could hinge on what happens in the weekend games.
Unfortunately, a lot of these games will overlap, so you may not be able to watch five games back-to-back. I know, I know, sorry for that. But I’ll do my best to help you make an informed decision on what games to tune into this weekend.
All kick off times are Eastern Time
Croatia vs Belgium, Friday Noon, ESPN Deportes, WatchESPN.com, ESPN3.com
Marc Wilmots’ Belgium side seem to be everyone’s pick to win the World Cup next summer. But they’re not there yet. Not quite.
They need a point from their last two games to secure qualification. But that could fast become a point from one game, as they face the notoriously difficult task of traveling to to Croatia for their penultimate qualifying game.
Igor Stimac’s side have only conceded once on their own patch in the entire campaign, and still have much to play for themselves. A win here would put them just two points behind their opponents, with a game still to go.
The Belgium forwards that will be looking to breach the impressive Croatian defense will include Christian Benteke, who has been called-up despite not playing a game for Villa since his injury back in September. But Romelu Lukaku could yet lead the line after his red-hot form for Everton has seen him net four times in just two-and-a-half Premier League games.
England vs Montenegro, Friday 3pm, FOX Sports 1 and FOX Deportes
It all comes down to this for Roy Hodgson and his England team. Whilst the build-up to the game has centered – somewhat typically for the Three Lions – mainly around off-pitch matters, the England team need to win both of their final two games to be certain of their World Cup place.
The first game of a Wembley double header will be against Montenegro, who themselves still harbor hopes of making it to next summer’s showpiece. And they’ve proven to be tricky opponents in the past for England, having drawn on the previous three occasions the two teams have met.
In Stefan Jovetic and Mirko Vucinic they certainly have players that can hurt England. But can the two star forwards be suitably supported by the rest of their compatriots to the extent where they can travel to the home of football and win?
That remains to be seen, but they will be tasked with defeating a much stronger England side that travelled to Ukraine in their last contest. Especially in attack, as Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge are all available for selection again.
Ecuador vs Uruguay, Friday 5pm, beIN SPORT Espanol
Perhaps the most significant, high pressure encounter of the weekend? The winner should secure an automatic place at the World Cup, whereas the loser looks likely to face the pressures of a play-off against a side from the Asian qualifying section.
It looks a tough game for Uruguay who have showcased especially patchy form throughout the course of qualifying. The attacking talents of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani speak for themselves, but it is at the other end of the pitch where they have struggled, having conceded a whopping 22 goals in 14 games.
Their defensive woes will be put to the test here, as Ecuador has proven to be an increasingly tough place to pick up a result. They are unbeaten at home in this round of qualifiers and are significantly more stingy in defense than their opponents on Friday evening; they held Argentina to a 1-1 draw in their last home qualifying game.
Both sides should be going all out for victory with tough final fixtures to follow, so we should see an open attacking game here. They’ll both be desperate to hang on to that coveted fourth place spot and with it, automatic qualification.
Mexico vs Panama, Friday 9:30pm, ESPNEWS, WatchESPN.com, UniMas, Univision Deportes
Mexico’s hopes of making the World Cup are dangling by a thread, put bluntly. They quite simply must win against Panama if they are looking to harbour any chance of qualifying for Brazil in 2014. There aren’t many who foreseen such a drastic decline in form, especially after hopes were so high following the nation’s triumphs in last summer’s Olympic games and U-17 World Cup.
The Azteca Stadium will be less than half for this contest, as the Mexican public have clearly become disillusioned with some of the lackluster showings put in by their team ahead over the course of this qualifying campaign. And it’s no wonder, they have only scored once in their four home games so far and even that was in a defeat to Honduras. The other three games on their own turf have been 0-0 draws.
And yet, if they manage to turn it round and pick up a win, El Tri’s fate remains in their own hands. Lose, and they would not only have to win in Costa Rica, but they’d also be relying on an already qualified United States to beat Panama away from in their final contest.
But Panama will be tough opposition for both Mexico and the United States, and they have surprised many with their strong performances throughout the course of the Hexagonal.
Obviously Mexico will be looking for a strong performance from talisman Javier Hernandez, not to mention veteran Rafael Marquez, who has been recalled after two years in the international wilderness. For the opposition, Blas Perez has been banging them in for FC Dallas, whilst nineteen-year-old Roberto Chen looks a superb young defender.
Ghana vs Egypt, Tuesday Noon, beIN SPORT and beIN SPORT Espanol
While it’s not a weekend match, Tuesday’s match between Ghana and Egypt is a must-see — featuring two of the strongest teams in Africa, but only one team can progress to Brazil.
In this first leg, to be played in Ghana, will former USMNT coach Bob Bradley be able to get a draw or win to take it back to Egypt? With the league shutting down and riots in Egypt in previous years, Egypt face a mountain to climb against a very qualified Ghana side.
What games will you be watching? Let me know in the comments section or on Twitter: @MattJFootball