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Five European games to watch in World Cup qualifying

Paris (AFP) – European qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia resumes this week with every nation playing twice after starting their campaigns last month. AFP Sports picks out some of the highlights amid a vast array of matches:

Southgate leads troubled England

England turn their back on the brief Sam Allardyce era as caretaker manager Gareth Southgate leads the team in a double-header of Group F matches against minnows Malta at Wembley and away to Slovenia. Allardyce left his post last week after just 67 days at the helm, departing “by mutual consent” after being caught giving advice about how to circumvent transfer rules and mocking his predecessor, Roy Hodgson, in a newspaper sting. His one game in charge ended in a 1-0 win in Slovakia, secured by a late Adam Lallana goal. Southgate, the England Under-21s coach, has recalled Manchester United duo Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard and confirmed that Wayne Rooney will continue as captain, describing him as “the outstanding leader in the group.” Burnley defender Michael Keane has also been called up to replace Stoke City’s Glen Johnson, who was ruled out through injury. A slip-up against Malta, ranked 176th in the world, is unthinkable, but Slovenia could prove sticky opponents with a squad notably containing Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Jan Oblak. England needed a late Rooney goal to win in Ljubljana in Euro 2016 qualifying.

Spain seek Italy revenge

Italy and Spain meet in a heavyweight clash in Turin just over three months after the Azzurri knocked the reigning champions out of Euro 2016 in the last 16 at the Stade de France. Giorgio Chiellini and Graziano Pelle scored Italy’s goals that day but much has changed in the short time since. For a start, both sides now have new coaches, with Giampiero Ventura replacing Chelsea-bound Antonio Conte at the helm of Italy and Julen Lopetegui taking over from Vicente del Bosque. “Spain will be in a new state of mind and will be looking to avenge their Euro 2016 defeat to us,” said Italy defender Leonardo Bonucci. “They have the best players. All you need is a look at their squad list to tell you that.” Italy won 3-1 in Israel in their Group G opener last month while Spain hammered Liechtenstein 8-0. After Thursday’s game, Spain visit Albania on Sunday while Italy go to Macedonia.

France look for kick-start

Didier Deschamps’ France return to the Stade de France when they play Bulgaria on Friday, their first match there since losing in extra time to Portugal in the Euro 2016 final. Since that agonising defeat, Les Bleus got off to something of a false start in their World Cup qualifying campaign, drawing 0-0 away to Belarus. They could really do with a win against Bulgaria before facing their main Group A rivals, the Netherlands, in Amsterdam next Monday. Bulgaria have a new coach in Petar Hubchev, who played when they last came to France in 1993. That night, a 2-1 Bulgarian win famously denied their hosts a place at the following year’s World Cup in the USA. “I’ve heard it spoken about but I was eight, it is quite a long time ago,” said France defender Laurent Koscielny. “It’s in the past.” There are two new faces in the French squad in defence in the shape of Athletic Bilbao stopper Aymeric Laporte and Presnel Kimpembe of Paris Saint-Germain.    

Kosovo play first ‘home’ game

Kosovo’s competitive debut last month ended in a creditable 1-1 draw away to Finland, with Valon Berisha scoring their maiden World Cup goal in the Group I encounter. It was a remarkable result given that FIFA only gave their approval for a host of players to represent the Balkan outfit on the day of the game. Now Albert Bunjaki’s side play their first “home” game, although they will face Croatia in the Albanian city of Shkoder because the facilities in Pristina, the Kosovan capital, are not yet deemed up to the standards of FIFA. In an extremely tough group, they follow Thursday’s match by playing Ukraine on Sunday. That match will be played in the Polish city of Krakow.

Iceland, Turkey meet again

Iceland’s remarkable journey to the quarter-finals of Euro 2016 started with a 3-0 home win against a stunned Turkey in Reykjavik in their opening qualifier in September 2014. Now with Heimir Hallgrimsson in sole charge after Lars Lagerback departed following the Euros, Iceland host Turkey again in World Cup qualifying Group I. Both teams drew 1-1 in their opening matches, Iceland in Ukraine and Turkey in Croatia.

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