Moldova v Scotland
If Scottish supporters are feeling decidedly uneasy about their national side heading to Chisinau this Friday it is with just cause. Lying in wait is the securement of second place in Group F and the reward of a Play-Off spot, and all that’s needed to attain this accomplishment is a single, simple victory over Moldova; a team that has scored just four goals in their last 20 games; a team ranked lower than Vanuatu, and Chad, and Guyana, who have won only once in their last 25 games and that a tense, tight 1-0 triumph over Azerbaijan.
That’s why Scottish fans are jumpy right now. Because a Play-Off spot beckons and it’s precisely when the challenge is undemanding and the prize substantial when historically Scotland implode.
Surely though that cannot happen here. Granted, the corresponding tie at Hampden Park in early September was a nail-biting affair determined by an early Lydon Dykes finish but that was a bad day at the office for Steve Clarke’s side and plenty of chances were still created. Of more significance is that game led to a four-match winning streak which takes Scotland on their travels in high spirits.
The absence of both playmaker Ryan Christie and Dykes to suspension is an issue for sure, but with a midfield pairing of Scott McTominay and John McGinn orchestrating proceedings and Che Adams up front, the visitors still have ample quality to ensure the job, on this occasion, gets firmly done.
A 2-0 away win at 9/2 seems like decent value, though understandably nerves will be frayed until the deadlock is broken.
— Daily Record Sport (@Record_Sport) November 2, 2021
England v Albania
Albania are ranked as a minnow and instinctively feel like a minnow but in truth they are anything but these days, as evidenced by their narrow loss to England back in March when they restricted Gareth Southgate’s men to just four attempts on target.
With the seasoned Edoardo Reja in the dugout, the Eagles have won ten of their last 20 international fixtures, topping their Nations League group last year due to such fine form. It means they are now in the company of Ukraine and Switzerland in the tournament, compared to former peers such as Gibraltar and the Faroe Islands.
As for their World Cup qualifying campaign, it reveals much about their defensive shape and fortitude that they’ve managed to keep the same number of clean sheets in Group I as England – an impressive five from eight – and this largely stems from the quality they possess in defence. All of their principal back five turn out regularly in Serie A.
Up front, that quality dips a little though the emergence of Armando Broja is a significant plus. The 20-year-old has scored four goals in 437 minutes for Southampton this term and has been directly involved in five goals for his country since May.
Even so, England should prevail here, with all the emphasis on them gaining the three points necessary to guarantee qualification to Qatar. It is unlikely that Southgate will release the handbrake again, as he did against Hungary to limited reward, but still, in Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Tammy Abraham the Three Lions are more than furnished with sufficient firepower to trouble Albania, even allowing for poor club form. In creative areas meanwhile, Phil Foden, Jack Grealish and Bukayo Saka will thrive on the generous possession they will be afforded though of course, factoring in Southgate’s conservatism, don’t expect all three to feature simultaneously.
The England manager will be frustrated at losing four of his squad late on, with Luke Shaw, Marcus Rashford, James Ward-Prowse and Mason Mount all withdrawing this week because of fitness issues but that has allowed for a last-minute call-up for Emile Smith Rowe. The Arsenal youngster is in exceptional form at present – don’t rule out an impactful cameo.
Though the hosts should be strongly fancied at Wembley this Friday, their opponent’s defensive stubbornness deserves some acknowledgement. Therefore, England to win but under 2.5 total goals at 15/8 feels like the most desirable option.
🦁 One of the most in-form players in Europe's top 5 leagues, Emile Smith Rowe deservedly gets his maiden senior England call-up 👏👏👏 pic.twitter.com/G8cAWCVzfK
— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) November 9, 2021
Italy v Switzerland
Since breaking their own world record for not conceding an international goal, Italy have surprisingly looked susceptible at the back, keeping just two clean sheets in their last nine fixtures and being breached on eight occasions. Still, it’s a feat worth recalling.
From April 2020 to June 2021, the Azzurri were impenetrable under Roberto Mancini, not conceding for a staggering 19 hours and 25 minutes until a late consolation from Austria’s Sasa Kalajdzic during extra-time of a knockout game at the Euros revealed they were mortal after all. It was a remarkable run that went a long way to securing Italy their first major championship since 2006 while – of more pertinence to their hosting of Switzerland this Friday – additionally it gained them a strong foothold in their World Cup qualifying group.
Yet matching them every step of the way has been Murat Yakin’s A-Team and this is apt given that the Swiss also enjoyed a successful Euros, reaching the quarter-finals before departing cruelly on penalties.
Unbeaten in their five games since, it’s notable they have let in just one goal and that in a friendly featuring an array of unfamiliar names. Indeed, it could be said that Switzerland presently boast the more resilient of the two rearguards and that is a claim that would have been farcical just a few short months ago.
They will need to be resilient once more this week, coming up against a forward line that includes clever technicians such as Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Chiesa, the latter of whom has two assists in his last two international outings. Italy may be vulnerable to swift counters these days but offensively they have only failed to score once since November of last year and what makes them particularly dangerous is the goal-scoring threats they possess on the bench as well as on the pitch.
Yet that rare blank occurred in Basel in the corresponding fixture to Friday’s encounter so, though it’s misguided to suggest a trip to Rome is ever routine, Switzerland at least know it’s a nullification they’re capable of.
With just two games apiece left to play, only goal difference separates these sides in Group C and with both having winnable contests to conclude their campaigns perhaps a final-day shoot-out might be accepted, if reluctantly as they cancel each other out here. A draw at 14/5, therefore, is tempting.
— Italy ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ (@Azzurri_En) November 8, 2021
Wales v Belarus
“It’s two cup finals, at home with a full house – bring it on.” That was Robert Page, Wales’ coach after seeing his side edge their way past Estonia last month to ensure a play-off spot in Group E remains firmly in their own hands with Belarus and Belgium heading to Cardiff in the days ahead. Simplistically put, two big pushes and the Red Dragons will have given themselves every chance of qualifying for their first World Cup since 1958.
The situation as it stands is this: After undertaking a typically mercurial campaign, full of thrills, spills and last-gasp winners, Wales are level on points with the Czech Republic but have a game in hand, this one against Belarus. Should they ultimately fail to top the Czechs, Page’s side is still all-but-guaranteed a play-off spot, courtesy of their Nations League exploits. But finishing second in Group E will give them a much more favourable draw in those play-offs.
It is an enormous frustration then that Kieffer Moore is suspended for this must-win affair while the availability of Gareth Bale is somewhat of a mystery. The nation’s only superstar is ‘raring to go’, according to Page, after being injured since September, yet last weekend was supposed to be Bale’s long-awaited comeback at Real Madrid. In the event, he was nowhere to be seen.
Regardless, perhaps we are too guilty at times anyway of ramping up the hype around the 32-year-old and his immense importance to his national side even if his contribution and influence has unquestionably been considerable. Because more so, what has propelled Wales to the brink of qualification is a back-line that typically features Championship fare and Premier League players who can barely get a game for their respective clubs.
Fifteen clean sheets in their last 25 contests is testimony to Page’s coaching acumen and the organisational skills of all involved though arguably the task awaiting them this week might be straightforward. Admittedly, Belarus put two past Wales in September but that aside, this shot-shy side ranked 95th in the world have struggled in front of goal as of late. Against the Czech Republic last month they failed to muster even a single shot on target. Wales are 8/11 to win to nil in front of a capacity crowd.
Wales. Golf. Madrid.
Gareth Bale is buzzing to be back on international duty 😃 pic.twitter.com/39pc153H1o
— GOAL (@goal) November 9, 2021