Russia, England under scrutiny as World Cup qualifying resumes
Russian coach Fabio Capello must beat Portugal to ensure critics stay off his back
France and Spain meet in a rematch of the Euro quarters, both nursing injuries
England's preparations to face San Marino and Poland have been far from ideal
UEFA World Cup qualifying continues Friday and Tuesday. Here are the storylines to watch ...
1. Capello faces crunch match against Portugal. It's far too early to call it a crisis, but for all the money that Russian football has lavished on players and coaches this summer, there has been precious little return -- yet. The country's two Champions League representatives, Zenit St. Petersburg and Spartak Moscow, are both pointless after two group games (despite Zenit spending €80 million on Hulk and Axel Witsel and Spartak playing Celtic at home), and now attention turns to the national team, World Cup hosts in 2018.
The Russian federation has appointed coach Fabio Capello, on a reported €10 million ($12.8 million) per year, to oversee the qualification process, something he managed with skilful ease twice for England. Russia has won its first two games, and on Friday welcomes top seed and Euro 2012 semifinalist Portugal, also with a 100 percent record, to Moscow.
The selection issues surrounding both coaches make for an interesting contrast: Paulo Bento has picked the same starting XI for eight of the last nine matches -- and with Cristiano Ronaldo recovered from a shoulder strain, looks set to continue that run (Capello said, "I had hoped it would be more serious") -- while the Italian is still experimenting with his best lineup.
Former international Andrey Tikhonov publicly criticized Capello this week for picking Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and ignoring Pavel Pogrebnyak, while his decision to appoint Andrei Arshavin as captain in his first Russia squad, but not select him since, raised eyebrows. Portugal defender Bruno Alves, who plays for Zenit, said his side would take a draw. Capello needs a win to ensure the critics stay off his back.
2. France-Spain, The Sequel. The last time these two sides met, it was Euro 2012's quarterfinal and a defining game for France coach Laurent Blanc, who had spoken of his principles about Spain-ifying his team's style of play. When the match came around, he deserted his philosophy, played two right backs (one of whom, Mathieu Debuchy, was posted in midfield) and France was toothless after Spain's early goal. Final score: 2-0. Less than four months later, under a new coach, the more pragmatic Didier Deschamps, France has a rematch.
The good news is that it sits atop the group after two wins, and that Deschamps seems to have hit upon a team and formation that works for him; the bad news is that some of his most important players -- specifically injured midfielders Rio Mavuba and Abou Diaby -- are injured. There is still some hope for Deschamps. Spain labored to a narrow win over Georgia, has no center backs of its own with Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique injured, while coach Vicente del Bosque's decision to leave out Juan Mata was a surprise. This match is not until Tuesday: before then Spain has a potential banana-skin tie in Belarus (who took four points off France in Euro 2012 qualifying). Deschamps will ensure that his team is harder to beat than Blanc's was.
3. England's preparations far from ideal. The one positive for England coach Roy Hodgson is that barely anyone has mentioned his side's slip-up in its 1-1 home draw with Ukraine last month in the build-up to this week's games against San Marino (Friday) and Poland (Tuesday).
The reason? Almost everything else that could have gone wrong for Hodgson has: he was caught indiscreetly telling Underground passengers that Rio Ferdinand's England career was as good as over; John Terry, former captain and linchpin in defense, retired from representing England claiming the racial abuse case against him made his position "untenable" (Hodgson still wants him to return) and Ashley Cole, on the verge of his 100th game for his country, an incredible achievement that only four other outfield players have managed, referred to the FA in a vulgar hashtag on Twitter after it questioned the evolution of his story in his witness statement in the Terry affair. Cole has since apologized but seems unlikely to be given the armband to wear for his century appearance. (On Thursday, his stand-in, Ryan Bertrand, was also reprimanded for swearing on Twitter about his withdrawal from the squad with an illness.)
This could be an awkward week for Hodgson: nothing less than a heavy win over minnows San Marino is expected, but more dropped points in Poland next week might force some questions about on-field matters to take precedence, for a change.
Just a quick point to add: England is not the only nation with subway/Twitter issues. Norway coach Egil Olsen had his wallet stolen on the Underground in Norway this week, while Berit Riise, mother of Norwegian internationals John Arne Helge and Bjorn Helge, was the victim of Twitter bullies after Helge pulled out of the squad to face Switzerland. "I feel trampled upon, this goes way over the line," she told VG, after one tweeter rejoiced at Helge's injury and verbally abused her. "These bullies have to be stopped."
4. Group A is for Angst: callups, dropouts and fallouts. One player is always going to be upset during international week, right? Last month it was Arshavin (see above), and this week it's Croatian midfielder Daniel Pranjic, who has taken exception to new coach Igor Stimac picking Dinamo Zagreb's Brazilian-born offensive midfielder Sammir. "I said to myself, if Sammir is called up, that will be the end of my time with the national team," he said. "I don't have anything against the guy, but I can't accept the way things are being done."
It's not because Sammir is Brazilian (Eduardo da Silva is still a popular member of the squad) but because of allegations that Dinamo vice president Zdravko Mamic, hoping to find a lucrative buyer from abroad for his player, requested the selection. To be fair to Stimac, Sammir is in good form, even if six of his 10 goals this season have come from penalties. But there is a whiff of unhappiness around the Croatia squad since previous boss Slaven Bilic left in the summer, and that could harm the team at Macedonia.
Group A rivals Serbia take on Belgium in what could be the battle for the top spot. There is still no place in Serbia coach Sinisa Mihajlovic's squad for midfielder Adem Ljajic, who was dropped for refusing to sing the national anthem (he later said it was "for personal reasons"), but the young side comes into the game after beating Wales 6-1.
Belgium's "golden generation" is tipped to reach Brazil and go a long way once there, but this could be a watershed moment for the side. Already deprived of Maroune Fellaini and Romelu Lukaku, the Diables Rouges could take a huge step to the World Cup with an away win. A defeat, and the questions that followed its failed Euro 2012 campaign might resurface.
5. Prandelli sticks with Pirlo. Andrea Pirlo was Italy's main man in its run to the Euro 2012 final, but has not started this season in the same form, perhaps understandably, given that the 33-year-old is getting re-used to the rhythms of playing twice a week (something he did not need to do last season as Juventus was not in Europe).
Prandelli has ignored suggestions that Pirlo quit playing for Italy and wants him to conduct Italy's midfield in this week's qualifiers against Armenia and Denmark. With 19-year-old Marco Verratti winning rave reviews at Paris Saint-Germain, I can see where Prandelli is coming from: two years for Verratti, also in the squad, learning from the master, so he can replace him as the team's focal point after the summer of 2014. Not everyone from the Euro finalist has been so lucky, though. Antonio Cassano may have had his best goal-scoring start to a season at his new club Inter, but there is no place for him in Prandelli's pick.