Sky Sports’ football writers discuss the main talking points as the 2024 European Championship qualifiers begin on Thursday…
Kane on brink of England record – but will his goals eventually lead to silverware?
- Italy vs England, March 23; kick off 7.45pm
- England vs Ukraine, March 26; kick off 5pm
Last month, it was the Tottenham record. This month the England scoring record could fall to Harry Kane too. However, as with his club landmark, his international achievement will be viewed from two sides.
First, there are the pure goals. He currently has 53 in 80, the same number as Wayne Rooney but in 40 fewer games. Jimmy Greaves, the man he surpassed at Spurs, may have an even better strike rate (44 in 57) but in the modern era, Kane is the standout. Not bad for a player once dubbed a one-season wonder.
But, as with his Tottenham career, it is the glaring absence of a trophy to go with those goals which will be hurting him. Kane has scored 17 penalties for England – but his missed spot-kick six minutes from time in the World Cup quarter-final with France left him inconsolable.
It was a huge moment in his career and one wonders whether, amid the inevitable elation, he will think back to that moment when he does eventually pass Rooney’s total. If the record had fallen in that December tie, it wouldn’t have won the match but the momentum and belief would have been with England. A huge opportunity to go on to a World Cup final, with Morocco in the next round.
Instead, that miss was another painful blow in his pursuit of silverware. He will go down as an England great, with the goals record ensuring him of that status. But can he be part of a great England team? All being well in qualifying, that will be decided next summer at Euro 2024.
Mancini unhappy at Serie A’s use of Italy players
- Italy vs England, March 23; kick off 7.45pm
- Malta vs Italy, March 26; kick-off 7.45pm
At club level, there is a lot of positivity around Italian football. Three Serie A teams made the Champions League quarter-finals this month – but it has come at a cost to the national team.
What is not helping Italy’s cause is a reliance on foreign talent to improve the Italian game. Italy manager Roberto Mancini believes it has gone too far.
Napoli are the success story of Italian football this season, but their only regular outfield option from Italy is Matteo Politano – and even he is rotated regularly. Last week, AC Milan named a starting XI without an Italian player for the first time.
“The teams are Italian, but there aren’t too many Italian players. That’s the problem,” said Mancini after picking his squad. “This is a problem we’ve had for a long time.
“If you see the three Italian teams left in the Champions League, they have seven or eight Italians combined. That is not a lot. We can’t complain about it. This is the reality and we must do something different. In some [reserve team] games, there aren’t Italian players at all.”
Asked about how it affects Thursday’s game with England, Mancini added: “It will be a tough game and it will be crucial to start well, but we need players who know these sorts of games.”
The dearth in top-level talent could explain why Mancini has used 96 players since becoming Italy manager five years ago. Compare that to Gareth Southgate, who has picked 88 England players – but has been in the job for two years longer than his Italian counterpart.
Which goalkeeper is ready to step up for Scotland?
- Scotland vs Cyprus, March 25; kick off 2pm
- Scotland vs Spain, March 28; kick off 7.45pm
A new goalkeeper will make his Scotland debut in the Euro 2024 qualifiers at Hampden Park and Motherwell’s Liam Kelly hopes he is the one given a chance.
With No 1 goalkeeper Craig Gordon out due to a double leg break, head coach Steve Clarke has also named uncapped duo Angus Gunn of Norwich and Hearts’ Zander Clark in the squad.
While Kelly and Clark have been called up previously, it is Gunn’s first inclusion after switching allegiance from England.
Gordon, who has 74 Scotland caps, is targeting a return to action next season and Kelly admits whoever is given their chance will need to impress to keep the jersey.
“It’s definitely a big opportunity for someone as for the last 20 years it’s always been the same three who have been at this unbelievable, outrageous level,” he told Sky Sports News of the Hearts stopper, David Marshall and Allan McGregor.
Kelly, who has made 35 appearances for Motherwell this season, insists there will be no bad feeling if he is overlooked for the games against Cyprus and Spain.
“I’m sure all three of us that are in the squad will feel ready to go but, if not, you support the goalie that’s playing because ultimately Scotland winning is the most important thing,” said the 27-year-old.
The beginning of a new dawn for O’Neill and Northern Ireland?
San Marino vs Northern Ireland; March 23; kick-off 7.45pm
Northern Ireland vs Finland; March 26; kick-off 7.45pm
A new chapter begins for Northern Ireland in San Marino on Thursday, with a familiar name leading the way. Michael O’Neill is back for a second spell in charge having left Stoke City and his return has excited followers of the national team.
A group consisting of Denmark, Finland, Slovenia, Kazakhstan and San Marino is kinder than what it could have been, but, despite the feel-good factor, challenges await for the Pot 5 side.
A long list of injuries to experienced players including Stuart Dallas, Jonny Evans and Steven Davis leaves O’Neill relying on several young players, but he admits he’s been impressed by what he’s seen.
An opening game away to the lowest ranked side in world football will always make those connected with Northern Irish football nervous but in O’Neill’s first spell he managed to find impressive consistency.
Three points would set them up nicely for his homecoming in Belfast against Finland on Saturday. Traits of an O’Neill team previously included being well organised, hard-working & dangerous from set-pieces.
The likes of Daniel Ballard and Trai Hume at Sunderland and Bolton trio Conor Bradley, Dion Charles and Eoin Toal could be ready to step up. There are also high hopes for Manchester City teenager Shea Charles.
Watford defender Craig Cathcart will captain the side and previous O’Neill players Josh Magennis, Conor Washington, Paddy McNair, George Saville, Jamal Lewis, Jordan Thompson and Shane Ferguson will be trusted to deliver. Belgian based midfielder Cameron McGeehan, formerly of Barnsley, is also back in the squad for the first time since 2018.
Victory would begin to heal the wounds from a disappointing Nations League campaign when Northern Ireland failed to beat Greece & Cyprus and lost in Kosovo, with former boss Ian Baraclough later revealing to Sky Sports that players viewed those games as ‘glorified friendlies’.
Could Griezmann’s France career be over after captaincy snub?
- France vs Netherlands, March 23; kick off 7.45pm
- Republic of Ireland vs France, March 27; kick off 7.45pm
Controversy never seems too far away from the France camp and Didier Deschamps is facing yet more problems with Antoine Griezmann said to be questioning his international future after being snubbed for the France captaincy.
Kylian Mbappe has been confirmed as the successor to Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris after the goalkeeper announced he was retiring from international duty after December’s World Cup final defeat by Argentina.
French outlet L’Equipe reported that Griezmann is dismayed that Mbappe has been chosen as the new skipper. The 32-year-old – who has 117 caps for his country since making his debut in 2014 and scored 42 goals – believed he was a strong candidate to take on the responsibility, but Deschamps had other ideas.
“Kylian ticks all the boxes to have this responsibility. On the pitch as well as within the squad, by being a key element,” Deschamps said after confirming earlier this week that Mbappe was his new captain with Griezmann named as his vice-captain.
Michel Platini says the move is “a very good idea”, while current France and Liverpool defender Ibrahima Konate said: “Mbappe deserves it, we are unanimous on that”. But former Arsenal and France winger Robert Pires thinks Griezmann has been shown a ‘lack of respect’ after missing out on the France captaincy.
Following the end of a World Cup cycle there have been plenty of changes in the France squad following the retirement of experienced players like Lloris, Man Utd defender Raphael Varane, experienced goalkeeper Steve Mandanda and the extended absence of midfielder Paul Pogba.
It’s seemingly a chance for a fresh start for Deschamps and his squad, but already off-field problems are dominating this international break for France with Griezmann now reportedly questioning his international future.
Will the Atletico Madrid forward, who has been a key figure for France under Deschamps, feature in the upcoming games against Netherlands and Ireland? Deschamps has work to do off the field to bring his squad together again.
How much has El Clasico acrimony hit Spain squad?
- Spain vs Norway, March 25; kick off 7.45pm
- Scotland vs Spain, March 28; kick off 7.45pm
At the height of one of the most bitter periods in the longstanding rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona, a Clasico-dominated Spain squad thrashed Italy 4-0 in the Euro 2012 final to lift its third major trophy in a row.
In spite of Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola’s personal animosity and comments from the then-Spain manager expressing “concern” over anger spilling out onto the international stage, the two teams put aside their differences to continue their role as the continent’s most ruthless winning machine.
Back then, what happened on the pitch stayed on the pitch. Not so after one of the bitterest Clasicos in recent years last weekend. Dani Ceballos and Gavi – both named in Luis de la Fuente’s squad – were among the worst culprits, with Ceballos later saying his opposite number should have been sent off over one flashpoint.
Reports in the Spanish press have suggested new national manager De la Fuente has been forced to hold his first training sessions in two separate groups, with Real Madrid and Barcelona players kept apart to stop tempers fraying.
Not the ideal start for a man looking to build a unit ready to lift the European Championship trophy in less than 18 months.
“The friction on the pitch is nothing more than friction in high-tension matches,” Real Madrid defender Dani Carvajal insisted.
“They are two rivals between whom there are very intense games. Now, in the national team, we defend the same shirt and we are in the same boat.”
A flat-out denial from the experienced defender, who has played in as many El Clasicos as most of his international team-mates.
But there is rarely smoke without fire, and the proof will be in the pudding of how well he and his team-mates can patch things up against Norway and Scotland over the coming week.
Ronaldo set for another record but how will Martinez use him?
- Portugal vs Liechtenstein, March 23; kick off 7.45pm
- Luxembourg vs Portugal, March 26; kick off 7.45pm
As Portugal prepare for a fresh start under new head coach Roberto Martinez, at least one constant remains – Cristiano Ronaldo.
The 38-year-old has been named in Martinez’s first squad for this month’s Euro 2024 qualifiers to seemingly clear up any confusion over his international future following the 2022 World Cup.
Former boss Fernando Santos dropped Ronaldo to the bench during the knockout stage in Qatar and, as the forward left the pitch in tears after Portugal were eliminated by Morocco in the quarter-final, many questioned whether he would represent his country ever again.
But the arrival of Martinez appears to be a welcome boost for Ronaldo, who now has the chance to add to his record tally of 118 international goals. “He is very important for the team. I do not look at the age,” Martinez said last week.
Of course, Ronaldo’s inclusion has now sparked a separate debate about the role he plays. Will Martinez use him from the bench as Santos did during his final two games, or will he go straight back into the starting line-up? If so, does that mean he’ll retain the captain’s armband?
Either way, if Ronaldo features against Liechtenstein on Thursday or Luxembourg three days later, he will add to his astonishing list of achievements by breaking yet another FIFA record. One more appearance will see him earn his 197th cap for Portugal, overtaking Kuwait forward Bader Al-Mutawa to stand alone at the top of the list.
Ronaldo led Portugal to glory at Euro 2016 and the inaugural Nations League in 2019, but there’s no doubt he’ll believe he can still achieve more on the international stage. As Portugal begin a new era under Martinez, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner has at least been given a chance to prove it.
Belgium handed tough group as Golden Generation broken up
- Sweden vs Belgium, March 24; kick-off 7.45pm
- Germany vs Belgium, March 28; kick-off 7.45pm
Last year’s World Cup represented the last hurrah for Belgium’s ‘Golden Generation’ but, in reality, it was one tournament too many. With nearly half of the 26-man squad being aged 30 or older, Roberto Martinez’s side scored just once in three games as they fell at the group stage for the first time since 1998.
Martinez’s six-year tenure unsurprisingly came to an end after the World Cup, while Eden Hazard, Toby Alderweireld and Simon Mignolet all decided to end their international careers.
New manager Domenico Tedesco may have pushed two more of Belgium’s biggest names towards retirement, with Dries Mertens and Axel Witsel both left out of his first squad, while Thorgan Hazard and Michy Batshuayi have also been dropped.
All of this has finally made way for the new generation and Tedesco has handed call-ups to uncapped teenagers Romeo Lavia and Johan Bakayoko, who have been impressing at Southampton and PSV, respectively.
Alexis Saelemaekers of AC Milan and Sebastiaan Bornauw of Wolfsburg – both 23 years old – have also been added to the squad after missing the World Cup, while Amadou Onana, Everton’s 21-year-old midfielder, can also expect to add to his four caps.
Tedesco’s changes have emphatically ended the ‘Golden Generation’s’ supremacy and nothing emphasises Belgium’s new focus on youth better than the fact that, at 37, their new manager is four years younger than Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is set to line up for Sweden against the Red Devils in their first match since the World Cup on Friday.
But Belgium’s trip to Stockholm is followed by a clash with Germany in Cologne and with Ralf Rangnick’s Austria also in Group F of Euro 2024 qualifying, Tedesco may find that culling the ageing stars from his squad was just the first of a number of tricky hurdles to overcome as he makes his way in international management.
Movie star Zlatan returns to reignite Romelu rivalry
- Sweden vs Belgium, March 24; kick-off 7.45pm
- Sweden vs Azerbaijan, March 27; kick-off 7.45pm
You would have been forgiven for thinking that Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s international football days were behind him.
Firstly, he’s 41 years old. He’s also spent most of this season out with a knee injury and has played just four times all year. Oh, and he’s taken up acting as a hobby by starring in the French film Asterix and Obelix, which came out in February.
But you can’t keep the great man away. Even at his great age, Ibrahimovic is back in the Sweden squad despite picking up just five caps in the last seven years.
He’s coming into form at the right time too for his country – he scored for AC Milan against Udinese on Saturday to become the oldest goalscorer in Serie A history.
And Friday night’s match with Belgium could reunite Ibrahimovic with one of his biggest individual rivals in Romelu Lukaku. The pair’s Milan derby clash in 2021 ended up being muralled on the streets of Milan.
And with Ibrahimovic revealing in a press conference on Wednesday that he is the “past, present and future” of Sweden, you know the striker won’t go quietly.
Take two for Ramsey as Wales begin post-Bale era
- Croatia vs Wales, March 25; kick-off 7.45pm
- Wales vs Latvia, March 28; kick-off 7.45pm
When Gareth Bale retired, Aaron Ramsey clearly went through significant reflection on where he wanted his future to go.
He could well have retired as well, and while the impact for Wales no longer having Bale will be great, to lose both Bale and Ramsey would have been extraordinarily challenging.
To compare, imagine Harry Kane, Jordan Henderson or Raheem Stirling all retiring from England duty at the same time. It’s a lot of experience, goals and talent to lose in one go.
So why Ramsey as captain, and what will he bring? Ramsey was seen as captaincy material 12 years ago by the late Gary Speed. He appointed Ramsey as Wales skipper when he was only 20 years old; he saw something then, albeit at a very young age.
Ramsey would be succeeded in the role in 2012 by Ashley s, but he has remained part of a senior leadership group within the Wales set-up. Ramsey is not the next cab on the rank, he is the natural successor given the fact he has committed to playing for Wales and at a high level with his club Nice in Ligue 1.
He has the experience and knowhow, but will do the job very differently from Bale. Ramsey is a different character, outwardly quieter, softly spoken. A slight shift perhaps in approach.
That, I’m sure, will help Rob Page with his ambition for the ‘post-Bale-era Wales’ as he has made some significant changes to his backroom staff following the World Cup. A subtle shake-up and freshening up.
Can Odegaard finally take centre stage in Spain?
- Spain vs Norway, March 25; kick-off 7.45pm
- Georgia vs Norway, March 28, kick-off 5pm
Martin Odegaard spent six years contracted to Real Madrid but failed to hit the ground at all, let alone hit it running.
In fact, he only represented the Spanish giants 11 times in that period and, barring a successful loan spell at Real Soceidad, life in LaLiga ended up passing him by.
Now the Norwegian midfielder will lead out his country against Spain finally fulfilling the potential he showed when Real signed him as a 15-year-old back in 2015. Now one of the Premier League’s shining lights with leaders Arsenal, he can finally show Spanish audiences what the hype was all about.
Odegaard’s role is particularly important this Saturday given Erling Haaland’s withdrawal from the Norway squad due to a groin injury.
The striker understudies are a bit hit and miss – Alexander Sorloth had endured mixed seasons in Europe following his failed spell at Crystal Palace, while Ola Solbakken is deemed one for the future after his outings for Bodo/Glimt earned him a January move to Jose Mourinho’s Roma.
Odegaard will be the creative influence as Norway look to get this relatively high-profile group of players to a first major tournament in nearly a quarter of a century.
Armenia prepare to face Turkey for first time since 2009
- Armenia vs Turkey, March 25; kick-off 5pm
- Armenia vs Cyprus, March 28; kick-off 4pm
- Turkey vs Croatia, March 28; kick-off 7.45pm
This may seem on the surface to be a battle among the also-rans in Wales’ Euro 2024 qualifying group along with Croatia, but there is a lot of geo-political history when it comes to Armenia’s relations with Turkey.
The two countries have been drawn in the same group and will face each other on Saturday for only the third time in history.
Armenia became an independent country in 1991 and despite them having a land border, there have been very few diplomatic relations over the past 32 years.
The tension appears to be thawing for now. The only other times Turkey faced Armenia was in 2008 and 2009, with Turkey winning both matches only to fail in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup.
The games were used as part of an international rapprochement under Gianni Infantino, the then UEFA Deputy General Secretary.
Tentative decorum was reached for that short period only to immediately collapse. This time, the games are not being used in any diplomatic sense as UEFA does not want them to be associated with previous failures to build bridges.
Small steps have been taken to reconciling differences with the opening of land borders to third-country citizens and the opening of airspaces to cargo transportation last July.
This will be a game played against a political backdrop but also laced with emotion, in the aftermath of the earthquake that has shocked Turkey. UEFA made an initial donation of €200,000 to support the vast humanitarian operation assisting the victims.
It is a long road to the European Championship final in Berlin on July 14, 2024 – and an even longer road to reconciliation for these two European neighbours. But for Armenians and their Turkish counterparts, the hope is that football can this time facilitate smoother relations. That would represent as big a victory for some as reaching the finals in Germany.