Hungary v England
England’s track record in qualifying fixtures for major tournaments is nigh-on peerless, losing just one of their last fifty going all the way back to 2009. From that half a century of straightforward success — often, it must be said, at the expense of lowly-ranked nations demeaned as ‘minnows’ — they have accrued a staggering aggregate score-line of 146 – 22. Under four different managers, the Three Lions have comfortably topped their last six World Cup and Euro qualifying groups.
That latter achievement is set to be extended further, with Gareth Southgate’s side currently boasting nine points from their opening three encounters in Group I as hundreds of countries around the world compete for berths in next year’s World Cup in Qatar. Their proud and long-standing record on a match-by-match basis, however, comes under serious threat this Thursday as Harry Kane and Co. travel to the fiery environs of the Puskas Arena, Budapest.
World Cup qualifiers. We’re ready to go. 💪🦁🦁🦁 pic.twitter.com/jgl8uvh55f
— Harry Kane (@HKane) September 1, 2021
Hungary were the over-achievers of this summer’s Euros, drawing with pre-tournament favourites France before coming within six minutes of eliminating Germany and progressing to the knockouts. Up front, veteran striker Adam Szalai and Roland Sallai combine to good effect and it’s worth noting that Sallai already has a goal and assist to his name this season with Freiburg in the Bundesliga. The Magyars’ midfield is staffed with honest industry and no little creativity while at the rear Atilla Fiola particularly impressed at this summer’s marquee event, with 19 ball recoveries overall.
Yet, for all their merits, it is their national stadium that is Hungary’s star performer. It is hostile and relentlessly animated, its atmosphere only intensified by a startling contrast to the empty grounds of this past year.
England head into this mania with players who individually are not yet up to full speed. Should John Stones start it will be his first competitive minutes since exiting Wembley as a losing finalist back in July while Harry Kane’s pre-season consisted of staying away from Tottenham’s training ground, his mindset fully distracted by a possible blockbuster move to Manchester City. Elsewhere, this is a squad that, by and large, is still acclimatizing to the constant and frenetic demands of top-level football after a truncated build-up.
— England (@England) September 1, 2021
There are of course exceptions. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s inclusion is shrewd given his excellent start to the new campaign that has seen the Liverpool star complete more key passes (15) than anyone across Europe’s big five leagues and Jack Grealish too has begun 2021/22 brightly, clearly relishing the challenge of establishing himself at the Etihad. The schemer whose cameos energized England’s summer will surely hope to be granted a bigger role here, along with the opportunity to link up in the attacking third with his new team-mate Raheem Sterling.
Sterling’s availability is key to England, an importance that was sharply evidenced at the Euros. The 26-year-old’s 15 goals in his last 25 appearances helped take the goal-scoring load off Kane and so often it is a partnership that sees England home. Remarkably, only six of England’s last 40 goals have not directly involved either one of the duo. The Manchester City winger is a generous 5/1 to open the scoring this Thursday.
At the back we can expect the away side to be solid, having conceded only twice in 1200 minutes of international football and indeed, the more England’s many plus-points are acknowledged the more we arrive at a firm conclusion. That this almost certainly won’t be a 5-0 walk-over, as routinely witnessed in previous qualifiers against Montenegro and San Marino. This will be exceedingly tough but still, a three-quarter fit and three-quarter’s ready England will prevail.
Denmark v Scotland
At this early juncture, the Danes are the leading goal-scorers across the qualifying groups with 14 in three games and this prolific spree last spring acted as a springboard for a successful Euros.
Displaying astonishing mettle after enduring the awful collapse of Christian Eriksen in their opening game Kasper Hjulmand’s side progressed to the semi-finals and did so via a high-intensity brand of football that invigorated. Only Spain and Italy scored more in the tournament and the same applies too to attempts on target. In this regard, Denmark’s accuracy impresses, troubling keepers 41% of the time.
Further illustrating their attacking intent, they were also rewarded the second most corners and completed the third most dribbles but enough with the stats because over and above the figures, their excellence was clear to the naked eye.
🏴It's a HUGE night for Scotland as they take on Denmark in the World Cup Qualifiers – live on Sky Sports Football from 7pm. Predictions?👇 pic.twitter.com/KvTmgEJ8dL
— Sky Sports Scotland (@ScotlandSky) September 1, 2021
Because, as much as their togetherness and spirit was clearly a driving force, this was and remains a team sprinkled with real quality. Mikkel Damsgaard has a luminous future, blessed as he is with terrific feet and an arch intelligence. Full-back Joakim Maehle bossed proceedings down the left. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s forthright displays rightfully got the Spurs midfielder into UEFA’s team of the tournament.
It should not be over-looked either that the Danes went into the Euros widely tipped as ‘dark horses’ on the back of a brilliant run of form that saw them lose only twice in 28, both times to Belgium.
In Copenhagen this evening they host another success story from the Euros, only to a much lesser degree.
Scotland may have once again exited a major competition at the group stage but there were enough positives gained, not least a stoic nullification of England at Wembley, while five points so far in Group F is additionally something to build on. It is regrettable therefore that Steve Clarke’s options have been somewhat depleted with injuries hitting areas of a squad that already relied on belief over elite talent.
The last time these nations faced one another in a meaningful encounter was in the 1986 World Cup, with the Scandinavians winning out 1-0. Don’t discount another tight triumph for the Danish Dynamite here with 9/2 available for the same score-line.
Portugal v Rep of Ireland
Portugal greatly disappointed at the Euros so they will no doubt be relieved to return to a World Cup qualifying campaign that has them top of Group A after two routine dismissals of inferior fare and a hard-fought draw in Serbia.
Post-mortems on the Selecao’s poor showings over the summer have identified an increasing reliance on Cristiano Ronaldo to produce individual magic, with Fernando Santos’ other creators too often anonymous. Bruno Fernandes endured a rotten time of it while Diogo Jota’s fine form for Liverpool in the latter half of 2020/21 all-but-vanished into thin air. Still, as much as they lacked flair and attacking ambition, there was no excusing the gaping gaps and poor positioning at the back that allowed Germany to fire four past them as another of the Premier League’s stand-out talents – last season’s FWA Footballer of the Year, Ruben Dias – flopped on the biggest stages of his career to date.
All of which will give encouragement to Ireland, or at least it would do if the Boys in Green weren’t mired in the doldrums, a predicament frankly that has persisted now for several years.
STARTING XI | Portugal v Ireland
Jamie McGrath gets his first start for Ireland as Aaron Connolly returns to the side
— FAIreland ⚽️🇮🇪 (@FAIreland) September 1, 2021
A long-standing inability to find the net has seen Ireland slide down the FIFA world rankings to 47th and contributed to stats that genuinely astound. In their last 35 fixtures, Stephen Kenny’s side have scored just 18 times, equating to a goal every 175 minutes going all the way back to March 2017. On 18 occasions they have drawn a blank.
This can reasonably be attributed to a notable decline in available quality up front and where once Ireland had Robbie Keane and Niall Quinn to turn to, now they must resort to the slim pickings of lower league stock or peripheral stars of the top-flight.
Not even Portugal’s malfunctioning rear-guard will be overly concerned here and though the 8/15 on the home side winning to nil is slight, it’s close to being a banker.
Lithuania v Northern Ireland
From the get-go Ian Baraclough’s team faced an uphill battle to secure a first World Cup placement since 1986, thrown into a group that contained Euro champions Italy and a Swiss outfit that seems forever destined to be criminally under-valued. Back in March, an opening 3-0 loss on the peninsula was to be expected and this was followed by a very respectful stalemate against Bulgaria but now Northern Ireland trail the two group favourites by a distance and already they have an awful lot to do.
Which makes this trip to whipping boys Lithuania a must-win just to keep a far-fetched dream alive and to that end there is a tentative cause for optimism in the form of a 3-0 win over Malta in a friendly three months ago. Prior to that Northern Ireland were on an eight-game winless streak with memories of their resurgence under Michael O’Neil fading fast.
Veteran wideman Neil McGinn has two goals in six but – Malta aside – this is hardly a prolific side so with the little-fancied Rinktine now on a run of seven consecutive losses themselves and presumably content to settle for a pride-restoring draw, the smart money here is on a low-scoring affair.
Under 1.5 goals is 13/8.