England have much to prove, Germany transition, Brazil World Cup worry
Nobody reacts to football results in the extreme, knee-jerk way that the English media does.
Lose and everything is bleak. Roy Hodgson can't manage, while the players are either spoiled, lazy brats or stiffs who aren't good enough and the entire English game is due a massive "root and branch" -- yes, that's the sort of terminology the country's Football Association likes to use -- review.
Win -- even if it's in a prestige friendly such as Saturday's 3-2 victory against Germany -- and there's talk of Golden Generations. Suddenly there's discussion about "world-class this" and "world-class that" and how, really, few nations are as talented as England.
It's unhealthy and it's dysfunctional but it is what it is. And heck, if you beat the world champions, you're allowed to feel good about yourself.
Never mind the fact that it was a friendly. Or that Germany's record in such games since the World Cup shows that, at home, they have lost 2-1 to the United States, drawn 2-2 with Australia and lost 4-2 to Argentina. On the road, they beat Spain 1-0 but fell 2-0 to France.
Far more significant than the result for England was the performance in the second half and the psychological lift to players such as Dele Alli, Jamie Vardy and Harry Kane. They didn't freeze as we've seen England teams do in the past. That's encouraging, but Hodgson put it best when he worried that this team would forget "a lot of the criticisms we've had in the past" and get "lifted up on to a pedestal."
He's right. These guys have achieved very little so far, both with England and -- except perhaps for Gary Cahill -- for their clubs as well. Let them stay hungry until they prove themselves in a real game in a real tournament.
Germany are a work in progress
As for Germany, here too you don't want to read too much into things and not just because of those aforementioned friendly results. Some were critical of the way the world champions became too loose after going two goals up and let England get back into the game.
More important than that, though, should be the realization that this side is an entirely different proposition defensively to that which triumphed in Brazil two years ago. Philipp Lahm and Per Mertesacker have retired, while Benedikt Howedes and Jerome Boateng are currently injured. Of those who started in Rio vs. Argentina, only Mats Hummels was in Saturday's lineup and he went off at half-time.
His replacement was Jonathan Tah, who has a great future but had a rough ride on his international debut. The rest of Joachim Low's back four included Emre Can, who never plays there at club level, at right-back, plus Antonio Rudiger, who has the physical tools but is extremely raw, at center-back and Jonas Hector on the left.
Meanwhile, though so many have rightly praised the reinvention of the German game and talked about copying the model, for whatever reason the production line doesn't seem to include center-forwards.
Mario Gomez isn't actually that old -- he turns 31 in July -- and you're happy he scored on his recall to the national team, but it's not at all clear that he fits what Low is trying to do. Gomez has 21 goals in 34 appearances on loan at Besiktas this season but it's not lost on anyone that, in the previous three campaigns, injuries and poor performance limited him to 18 league goals at Fiorentina and Bayern Munich.
It won't be an issue at the Euros because Germany can just stick Thomas Muller up front and he'll do the job better than most natural born center-forwards, but it does make you wonder just why the cupboard is so bare in terms of traditional strikers.
Brazil's problems continue
The spotlight was on Uruguay's visit to Brazil in South American qualifying, not least because it marked the return of Luis Suarez to competitive international football, following his ban for biting Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup.
The game finished 2-2 and served as a reminder that Dunga's Selecao remains a fragile entity. Brazil look good up top with the trio of Neymar, Willian and Douglas Costa and the midfield also held up. But when you're Brazil and you're 2-0 up at home after half an hour against a Uruguay side missing first-choice center-backs Jose Gimenez and Diego Godin, you really ought to be able to see out the game.
That's what would have happened if not for a double defensive meltdown from David Luiz. After Douglas Costa and Renato Augusto had given Brazil a two-goal cushion, the PSG defender seemed to completely disregard Edinson Cavani and Uruguay pulled one back in the 30th minute.
Maybe it was sheer habit -- the two are teammates at Paris Saint-Germain after all -- or maybe it was just the umpteenth mental lapse from a player who really ought to be doing better. Luiz was also very slow to react on the second goal, a diagonal strike from Suarez.
Some have suggested that Luiz is a far better player alongside Thiago Silva. If that's the case, then maybe it's time for Dunga to rethink his dropping of Brazil's former captain. And if the coach can't bring himself to do that then the obvious solution is ditching Luiz as well, because some combination of Marquinhos and Miranda is going to be better than what was seen against Uruguay.
The road to Russia 2018 is very long and it's highly improbable that Brazil will miss out. But the fact of the matter is that a slip-up in Paraguay on Tuesday, where they will be without the suspended Neymar, coupled with Chile winning in Venezuela and Colombia beating Ecuador, could see the Selecao fall as low as seventh in CONMEBOL qualifying.
What's more, with no qualifiers until September, that will mean nearly six months of acrimony, second-guessing and controversy. Dunga and Brazil don't need that.
Assessing Spain's striker options
Auditions for Spain's center-forward slot continued over the international break but, truth be told, we're not much further forward.
Aritz Aduriz scored and looked good in the 1-1 draw against Italy, while Paco Alcacer, who got the nod in the scoreless stalemate against Romania, was less impressive. Those two, along with Alvaro Morata and Diego Costa, who wasn't called up this time around, are basically the contenders to play up front for Vicente del Bosque.
You can poke holes in each of the four. Aduriz is having a monster season and has been in good form for several years, but he turned 35 last month and simply hasn't played much international football. Alcacer, meanwhile, has scored two league goals in 2016 and has been caught up in Gary Neville's Valencia nightmare.
Morata has come off the bench more than he has started for Juventus this season and, at one point, made a whopping 20 appearances without scoring. As for Costa, apart from the usual disciplinary concerns, his style of play makes him feel too often like a foreign object in this Spain team and his international record of one goal in 10 appearances is woeful.
But maybe it makes more sense to view the glass as half-full. Aduriz is old but plays with the intensity and athleticism of a much younger man and Spain don't need him to be their center-forward for the next decade, just to perform for seven games in June and July. Moreover, his limited international experience is offset by the fact that most of the sides he'll face at the Euros are probably no better than those he comes up against in La Liga.
Alcacer is 22 and brimming with energy. His quickness and alertness make him a very good fit for the creative players behind him in the Spain side. Morata has quality, size, strength and mobility in droves and, while he may not be an automatic choice for Max Allegri at Juventus, when fit he's possibly the best-rounded of Del Bosque's options.
As for Costa, despite Chelsea's star-crossed season, since Boxing Day he has 10 goals in 16 games at club level. He also brings a physical dimension that Spain are lacking elsewhere.
In other words, while Del Bosque faces a dilemma, it's not as if he's choosing between four random guys. He might make the wrong choice, sure, but given that quartet it's unlikely he'll make a bad choice.
Italy set for a new managerial approach?
The Italian FA are slowly beginning the hunt for Antonio Conte's successor at the helm of the Azzurri and one scenario seems to be gaining momentum: Rather than opting for the biggest name available, the idea would be to bring back Marcello Lippi in a supervisory capacity and name a less experienced up-and-comer as coach.
Candidates might include U21 boss Gigi Di Biagio and Fabio Cannavaro, whose experiences thus far are limited to China and Saudi Arabia but whose pedigree is unquestioned. Antonio Cabrini, who currently coaches the women's national team, might also be in contention.
It would be an interesting -- if not unprecedented -- experiment, with the idea that a country's team is something different, to be approached differently to a club side. In some ways, Conte already has departed from the conventional wisdom of national team coaches.
While many believe in picking players on form, he has pushed a whole "club" ethos, just as he promised when he was appointed and said: "I won't necessarily pick the best players; I'll pick the ones who fit and can make a team."
In his nearly two years at the helm, he has done just that. He has been loyal to a hardcore of players, sometimes at the expense of more gifted ones, and he has stuck with them through rough times. This might not be the best Italy team in recent memory -- in fact, in terms of overall talent, it may be one of the worst -- but it feels like a cohesive unit with a clear identity.
"When I join up with the national team, it feels like I'm playing for a club side," Graziano Pelle has said. "That's really important to me; it makes you feel part of a team, a full-formed team at that."
It's an approach that has pros and cons and is also a bit of a luxury: Conte can do this precisely because it's not as if Italy's talent pool is brimming with superstars right now. Yet compared to some revolving door sides, in which a player gets an immediate call-up after scoring a hat trick, it at least offers stability, security and the benefits of cohesion.
So the Zlatan Ibrahimovic sweepstakes has begun. Even as he continues to negotiate his contract extension with Paris Saint-Germain, the Swedish forward is being linked everywhere from the Premier League to China to Major League Soccer.
Because it's international week and things are slow, a throwaway comment from the big man prompted instant speculation and back-page headlines. Asked about moving to England, he said: "There has been interest and we'll see where it leads. But it would have to be like a marriage, both sides have to want it as much."
Don't read too much into it. This is Mino Raiola, Ibrahimovic's agent, doing his job. It's classic extension talk. And that's before you get into salary demands.
Ibrahimovic currently earns some $20 million a season. If you like to think in terms of weekly wages in pounds sterling, that's around £273,000 a week. Given that PSG aren't going to cut his wages -- he's having one of the best seasons of his career -- and that you presume he'd want a two-year deal, you'd probably be looking at somewhere north of $50m for someone who turns 35 in October.
Even with the new TV deal, not many clubs are going to happily pay that, particularly when you consider that his "Zlatan-ness" probably won't want to move unless it's to a Champions League club. And that narrows the field further because, frankly, it's hard to see Leicester or Tottenham pushing the boat out for him. And given his history with Pep Guardiola, you can rule out Manchester City as well.
That doesn't leave too many English destinations, does it?