World Cup Qualifiers can be an invaluable form guide for the Euros


So chaotic is the footballing schedule in this post-Covid landscape that the international scene has been thrown out of whack.

Across the next 10 days the Home Nations, along with the rest of Europe, begin their World Cup qualifying campaigns, striving to secure a spot at Qatar 2022. We then return to club commitments until this summer, when Euro 2020 finally kicks off in June, a year later than planned.

In effect then, we have the qualifying for one major tournament getting underway before another major tournament reaches its conclusion and if this unique situation lends itself to some confusion it should not be viewed as a negative. Instead, it is an opportunity.

Because typically the lead up to any tournament is awash with meaningless friendlies that tells us very little about the form of key players when adorning their national shirts. Indeed, we’re usually in the dark as to the health of teams as a whole at this late stage because it’s not unknown for managers to field their second string against purposely picked weak opposition to get minutes into legs.

Here though, we have the leading contenders set to star in this summer’s big event all slated to play several competitive fixtures just three months beforehand.

It is a rare and invaluable chance to properly assess individuals and teams alike with a major championship on the doorstep. Let’s not pass it up.

Southgate’s selections

The inclusion of Jesse Lingard in Gareth Southgate’s 26-man squad to face San Marino, Albania and Poland is a good example of how this international break can be an informative preview of what potentially lies ahead.

Often have we seen a player force their way into the England reckoning with a tournament on the horizon and be rewarded with half an hour against a minnow in a friendly. Yet we all know the player in question must truly stand out to make a serious claim because in reality the manager has felt duty-bound to take a look. It amounts to a token gesture.

Whereas here Lingard’s selection feels very different and that’s not solely because the midfielder was once a pivotal figure in Southgate’s side. It’s because he’s been picked for World Cup qualifiers.

Should the 28-year-old continue to impress after scoring five and making three assists in eight appearances on loan at West Ham then he will put himself firmly in the frame to feature this summer. At the expense of who remains open to debate.

Jesse Lingard, Manchester United.jpg

Widening the lens, these forthcoming games will reveal much about the shape England are in at present. The last occasion we saw them in action was four long months ago and an awful lot has changed since then with a transformed John Stones being one advancement balanced out by a regression in form from Raheem Sterling.

Elsewhere Aston Villa’s Oli Watkins has a chance to replace Tammy Abraham in the striking ranks while an injury to Jordan Pickford affords Dean Henderson a shot at grabbing the gloves for the biggest stage.

The Three Lions are 5/1 joint favourites to win Euro 2020. Expect those odds to be shaved if they win all three of their upcoming games which they likely will.

Leading goal-scorer

The combined figures of the four shortest priced marksmen vying to top the goal-scoring chart this summer is truly staggering.

Between them Harry Kane, Romelu Lukaku, Cristiano Ronaldo and Kylian Mbappe have scored 112 goals this season for their respective outfits in 144 combined appearances. That’s a goal every 102.8 minutes.

It’s no surprise then to see this lethal quartet – who demand and expect to grab the headlines and have the elite ability to back up their self-belief – miles ahead of the rest in the leading goal-scorer market for Euro 2020 with lesser attacking talents of teams fancied to go far trailing in their wake.

Yet there is an important consideration here that must be factored in because those numbers only apply to club football. On the international stage it’s a different ball-game.

When concentrating only on goals converted for their country we see that Kane’s firm favourite status is a touch wide of the post because the Tottenham forward may indeed one day surpass Wayne Rooney’s overall record but he has failed to score in his past six appearances, his second longest barren spell for the Three Lions. By comparison Lukaku has scored six in his last six international games with Ronaldo and Mbappe notching three apiece.

Again, this places a good deal of emphasis on this week’s fixtures to sway our thinking as regards to this summer. In the days ahead Kane faces San Marino, ranked 210 in the world, and Albania, ranked a lowly 66th. Surely he will rediscover his prolificacy against one or both of these inferior foes?

If he doesn’t though, then Kane’s favourite tag should be ignored with better value options found elsewhere.

Incidentally, right now Oliver Giroud is a great shout at 25/1 to top his striking peers at the Euros. The handsome hit-man has found the net nine times in his last ten starts for France.

Group winners

When assessing the odds for each probable group winner it’s hard to argue with the 8/15 currently available for Italy to top Group A or the 4/6 for Belgium to do likewise in group B. Both are in formidable form and should comfortably see off their nearest challengers in Switzerland and Denmark respectively.

In Group C though things get a little interesting because for all of Holland’s undoubted class and plethora of household names their firm favourite status – like Kane in the goal-scoring field – slightly jars.

The Dutch have only won three from their last seven internationals, failing to put away Bosnia and Herzegovina and coming unstuck against Mexico in the process. More so, it’s a recent return that compares poorly to their group rivals Austria who have lost only once since November 2019.

Given that Franco Foda’s well-balanced side are 11/2 outsiders it will be intriguing to see how they fare away to Scotland this week. It will be intriguing too gauging Holland’s trip to Turkey.

Player of the tournament

It would admittedly be a stretch to suggest that the next 10 days of international football might better determine who individually steals the show this summer. Why? Because Kevin de Bruyne could have a stinker vs Wales on Wednesday and he would still be Kevin de Bruyne. Kylian Mbappe meanwhile seemingly has a rare gift of exploding into brilliance at will. He will almost certainly feature prominently for Les Bleus.

These World Cup qualifiers however, do provide a window into the near future when it concerns players who are either struggling with their clubs or battling with injuries.

It is illuminating for example, that Eden Hazard has been omitted from the Belgium squad due to his ongoing muscle problem. In the recent past Roberto Martinez has selected his scheming superstar on the off-chance of a cameo when half-fit and his absence casts serious doubts over Hazard’s ability to recover sufficiently by June to boss proceedings.

As for another long-shot, Frenkie De Jong is a distant 40/1 to succeed Andres Iniesta and Antoine Griezmann in being lauded as the most influential player at the tournament yet perhaps his disappointing time in Barcelona comes into play here? Might he be revived in international colours and take great pleasure in reminding the watching continent of his immense talent?

The same thinking applies to Paul Pogba who could conceivably show once again this week that he is a vastly improved player with a rooster on his chest. The United letdown is 25/1 in this field and that’s a very decent shout.