Of all the international breaks on the soccer calendar, this one will probably be the most enjoyable.
With the World Cup on the horizon and many of the play-off ties already in motion, we see some impassioned, dramatic and – perhaps most importantly of all – proper competitive soccer.
Ok, Ok. We know Mexico and Uruguay having almost certainly booked their place at next summer’s showpiece after dominant first leg showings, but this week’s ‘must watch five’ contain three play-off ties from across the globe that look set to be thrillingly close encounters. We’ve also thrown in a couple of friendly games that could catch fire.
As per usual, we’ve done our best to pick games that kick-off at different times so that if you so wish, you can watch them all. Full schedule for all the World Cup qualifiers is available here.
Programming note: Many of the games are being shown exclusively on beIN SPORT, beIN SPORT Espanol and DishWorld. Even if you don’t have a TV subscription to beIN SPORT, you can access those channels via online streaming service DishWorld for $10/month. Read our review of DishWorld. And sign up for DishWorld via their website.
Enjoy the games!
Kick off times are Eastern Time
Portugal vs Sweden
1st leg, Friday 2:45pm, ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN.com; 2nd leg, Tuesday 2:45pm, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN.com
Perhaps the most appealing of all the UEFA World Cup play-offs, as two of the game’s biggest characters battle it out for their respective country’s spot at Brazil.
It promises to be a wonderful pair of games, but they are laced with a tinge of sadness, for this enticing draw means one of Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Cristiano Ronaldo will not be plying their trade on football’s biggest stage next summer. One things for sure, though; they will both have a huge say in determining whether or not it is Zlatan’s Sweden or Cristiano’s Portugal who take their place at the World Cup.
Whilst the two players will not line-up directly against each other on the pitch, it will be an intriguing battle between a duo who are arguably the most in-form goalscorers in European football. To put into prolific exploits into a statistical context, so far this campaign they have already scored 48 goals and 7 hat-tricks between them. We’re only in November!
Many are billing this as a straight shoot-out between the two, but the collective team efforts will be wholly important too. Portugal – who are slim favourites heading into the double-header – will be looking to take advantage of having the first leg in Lisbon.
A strong showing here would force Sweden to come out and really go for it in the return leg, which would suit the counter attacking style of Paulo Bento’s side and in particular Ronaldo. But if the Swedes can get a positive result at home, then you’d certainly fancy them to see it out in front of their own fans.
Senegal vs Ivory Coast
A tie nicely poised heading into the second of two legs.
Ivory Coast won the first game 3-1 with goals from Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou and Gervinho, but they will have been slightly disappointed come the final whistle. The Elephants were 3-0 up and cruising on before Papiss Demba Cisse bagged a goal deep into stoppage time that will give the Senegalese players real impetus heading into the second leg. A 3-0 score would have meant a 4-0 turnaround would have seen Senegal through; now they only need to win 2-0.
We say ‘only’, but whilst it not quite as insurmountable a task as the one facing Egypt, it is by no means an easy one. Ivory Coast still boast the most star-studded squad of all the African nations and even away from home, you would fancy them to net here.
Senegal might have fancied their chances a little more if they were actually playing in front of their own supporters. But they are banned from hosting games during the qualifying stage after home supporters rallied during a game against Ivory Coast back in October 2012. Resultantly, this one will be played in Casablanca, Morocco.
Nonetheless, in their three ‘home’ games during qualifying, Senegal boast an impressive haul of two wins and one draw. An early goal for them here and it will be very much game on.
Argentina vs Bosnia
These two clash on neutral soil at the Busch Stadium in St Louis, Missouri.
For Bosnia, it will be an excellent test of their much coveted progress. They qualified for Brazil 2014 by finishing top of their group and in doing so, will take their place at a major tournament for the first time in the nations history.
Under their inspirational boss Safet Susic, the team have looked galvanized and full of attacking intent. Inspired by prolific forwards Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic, they pipped Greece to the top spot in Group G on goal difference, scoring a whopping 30 goals from their ten qualifying games in the process.
Even though this game is on neutral ground, expect the majority of the crowd to be right behind Bosnia. St. Louis has the largest Bosnian population in the world outside of the country itself and you can bet those supporters will be keen to back their heroes to the hilt. In that kind of atmosphere and against stellar opposition, the team will be taking this one very seriously indeed. It’s set to be a thorough examination of their World Cup credentials.
Argentina will give provide this side a real test, even without their captain and talisman Lionel Messi. The Barcelona man will miss this one, but a squad containing the likes of Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria will pose a significant threat.
Both sides love to attack, so expect a very entertaining game.
Algeria vs Burkina Faso
Burkina Faso are on the brink of qualifying for their first ever major tournament as they take a 3-2 lead to Algeria.
If the second leg is half as dramatic as the first we are all in for a real treat. The first game was action packed, open and packed with controversy. With the score-line at 2-2, the match looked to be heading towards a draw. But late-on, Burkina Faso earned a late penalty in massively controversial circumstances. Algeria’s Essaid Belkalem was seen to have handled the ball in the penalty area, although replays seem to suggest that he was too close to the ball to have handled in intentionally – not to mention the fact he had his arms crossed behind his back!
The Algerian players protested furiously as you might expect, and clashes between the players continued down into the tunnel and dressing rooms.
No bother for the neutrals though, as that late goal puts the tie on a knife-edge. Burkina Faso will fancy their chances of holding onto that one-goal lead, but Algeria will also be confident of securing a win on their home patch that will see them through to Brazil; a winning score of 1-0 or 2-1 would be enough for them.
The away side could welcome back star player Alain Traore, who would give Burkina Faso a potent attacking threat alongside fellow forward Jonathan Pitroipa. But with two away goals in the bag, Algeria know they have license to attack. The result should be another encapsulating clash.
England vs Germany
Tuesday, 3pm on FOX Sports 1 and FOX Soccer 2GO
Wembley will host a game between two sides who are arguably the biggest rivals in international football on Tuesday night. It always makes for encapsulating viewing when these two sides meet and both will be looking to make a statement ahead of next summer.
The last time these two met was when Germany smashed England 4-1 at the 2010 World Cup.
Roy Hodgson’s England team finished their qualifying campaign with a flourish, putting in two excellent performances to qualify top of the group. The Three Lions played a vibrant, engaging brand of football in those games and Hodgson will be hoping they can maintain that flair against top opposition.
Germany have merely continued their renaissance since that emphatic victory. They possess one of the most fearsome squads in international football and will provide England with a huge test at Wembley. Mesut Ozil looks likely to be rested, but England will have their work cut out against the likes of Marco Reus, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thomas Muller.
If there one friendly game that’s never really a friendly, then this is it. Expect a packed house, passionate fans and a wonderful atmosphere at the home of football on Tuesday night.
What games will you be watching this week? Let me know in the comments section or on Twitter: @MattJFootball