European games to watch in WC qualifying
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.
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.
Didier Deschamps’ France return to the Stade de France when they play Bulgaria tomorrow, 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.
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’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 today’s match by playing Ukraine on Sunday.
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.
Kosovo play first ‘home’ Rashford – AFP