Germany face relegation, plus Rooney's England return vs. U.S. the highlights of international break
The club football season is in full swing, but first we have the final international break of 2018, and despite there being several friendlies, there's a lot to play for in Europe and Africa in particular. Nick Ames rounds up the things to watch over the next 10 days.
Germany could get relegated? No, seriously!
If anyone doubted the UEFA Nations League's capacity to throw up a big story line, what about this: Germany are on the verge of taking a seat away from Europe's top table. Their meeting with oldest, fiercest rivals the Netherlands on Monday in Gelsenkirchen should be a riveting watch, given the likelihood that the winner takes it all.
If the Dutch overcome France (already the Group A1 winners) on Friday, then it will be academic -- Germany will be demoted to League B and face meetings with, potentially, the likes of Finland and Israel. Any other outcome will give Joachim Low's team a chance to bail themselves out with a win -- although it might have to be a big one -- and the manager badly needs a result after the humiliation of last month's 3-0 reverse in Amsterdam.
Jerome Boateng and Marc-Andre ter Stegen have been left out of the current squad, with the former agreeing with Low that he needs a break. Low might receive one of his own if he cannot cajole Germany to shake off a malaise that has threatened to tarnish so many years of good work.
Is Rooney's return a distraction for England?
Gareth Southgate called England a "strange country" upon finding himself faced with dozens of questions about Wayne Rooney last week, and perhaps he had a point. All eyes will be on the D.C. United player's one-off return to the international fray on Thursday at Wembley, and there is no real reason that the farewell appearance of an exceptional servant to the cause should not be met by a celebratory mood at Wembley.
Rooney will presumably play for the last 20 minutes or so -- in other words, the point at which most who attend friendly matches are starting to plan their journeys home -- and if he can add to his record 53-goal tally in that time, most of the crowd will go home happy. Meanwhile, a U.S. team that remains in flux under caretaker manager Dave Sarachan will hopefully have given Southgate's side a decent workout, and thoughts can turn to a higher-stakes affair in the Nations League against Croatia.
Depending on the outcome between the World Cup runners-up and Spain on Thursday, a victory could put England in next year's finals, while a defeat could consign them to the second tier. Southgate must hope that the manufactured controversy around a well-meaning gesture dies down as soon as the final whistle of the U.S. game blows.
Mancini and Italy seek to continue their rebuild
Italy were excellent during their October victory in Poland, even if they left it until the 92nd minute to clinch the three points through Cristiano Biraghi. The manner of their performance, full of fluid moves from the back and slick interchanges in midfield, bred the suggestion that things are turning around under Roberto Mancini, and Saturday's meeting with Portugal will be worth watching to see whether a full-blown recovery is in motion.
Should they win in Milan, it will at least put pressure on the group-topping Portuguese to defeat Poland next week and make sure of qualification for next summer's finals. Italy have sunk so low in recent times, though, that the consequences hardly matter as long as there is more evidence of a shift in tone.
Sandro Tonali, the 18-year-old midfielder from Serie B side Brescia, has been named in the squad to face Portugal and, in a friendly, the USA next week: Mancini says he is "incredibly gifted," and inevitable comparisons with Andrea Pirlo have taken hold back home. How Italy would love a new version of the ex-Milan and Juventus playmaker. Most of all, though, they would be glad to maintain the current sense of upward mobility.
It's Luxembourg's time to shine
If Luxembourg beat Belarus at home on Thursday, they will win Nations League group D2 and can prepare for a shot at the big time that never previously seemed possible. Barring an unlikely direct progression from the Euro 2020 qualifiers, they'd be one of the four Group D teams playing off for the tournament in 16 months' time, and while this has been made possible by a new way in, it would not diminish their achievement.
Luc Holtz's young side, representing a country of just 590,000 inhabitants, has played some vibrant football in getting this far and has put nations with far greater resources to shame. The likes of F91 Dudelange forward Danel Sinani, Ufa playmaker Olivier Thill and Lyon midfielder Christopher Martins have big futures however the next week pans out, but success is tantalisingly within their grasp.
History is on their side -- they beat the Belarusians 1-0 at Stade Josy Barthel in a World Cup qualifier last year -- and if it repeats itself, a country that has never held any prominence at football's highest level could soon be an unlikely centre of attention.
Arsenal's new star ready to give Brazil a test
On the face of things, Brazil have barely missed a beat since the World Cup, winning four friendlies without conceding a goal and, in the most recent of them, edging past old enemy Argentina with an added-time strike from Miranda. Tite's side were flat that day, though, failing to convince against relatively inexperienced opponents, and they will be required to sharpen up against another traditional rival.
Uruguay lie in wait at Arsenal's Emirates Stadium on Friday, and it will be a particularly special night for Lucas Torreira. The midfielder has quickly gained a cult following with his all-action, astute performances in the Gunners' engine room. Since debuting for Uruguay in March, he has become an important component of the national team, and competing in what he describes as an "awesome game" against the Selecao will underline how far he has come.
Torreira is sure to receive a raucous welcome from the local support as well. Overall, Uruguay look equipped to give Brazil by far their toughest encounter since the summer, and with the 2019 Copa America drawing nearer, the tempo should be agreeably high throughout.
Africa's big teams benefit from expanded AFCON format
There seems to be little danger of a high-profile absentee from next year's Africa Cup of Nations, and that's largely due to the expansion to 24 teams, which provides a safety net and means the best stories are to be found among first-time qualifiers.
Nigeria, the host country (until further notice) Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Morocco and Algeria all look to be in control of their destinies, while Egypt, Tunisia and Senegal are home and dry with two matches to go. Ghana have been stalled over the uncertainty about Sierra Leone's ability to participate after receiving a FIFA ban, but otherwise the joy in these qualifiers lies in the unfamiliar.
For example, Madagascar have already qualified for their first AFCON, and they will be joined, just as remarkably, by Mauritania if Corentin Martins' side can beat Botswana at home on Sunday.
Watch out, too, for tiny Burundi. The impoverished east African state, who can call upon Saido Berahino these days, will put themselves on the verge of making their own piece of history if they take the expected three points in South Sudan on Friday. That would tee up a decisive home fixture with Gabon next March and set up one of the year's least likely stories of football success.