Neymar-less Brazil face test in Russia, powers Spain and Germany to size each other up
With just three months until the World Cup, many of football's heavyweights are set to face off this week in international friendlies. Although just friendlies, there is no shortage of storylines, and these games carry added significance with the summer rapidly approaching. Nick Ames identifies five of the biggest things to keep an eye on during this international break.
Neymar's absence poses questions for Brazil -- and Russia
The host nation badly needs some crumbs of encouragement before this summer's tournament, and a meeting with Brazil, revitalised under Tite, hardly looks the biggest confidence booster on paper. Neymar's absence should give Russia more of a chance of pulling off a result in Moscow, and it is a factor that brings up interesting questions for both sides. Will Brazil, so sleek over the past couple of years, provide a handy indication that this time around they will not be derailed by any misfortune that befalls their talisman? Will Russia -- whose own injury list does not make for pretty reading, with key forward Aleksandr Kokorin among three players who will probably miss the World Cup due to cruciate injuries -- offer a suggestion that they can capitalise and bloody the nose of one of the favourites? They performed respectably against both Argentina and Spain in November, but the sense persists that a big result is needed from somewhere if Stanislav Cherchesov's side are to have the football-supporting public's full backing come June.
Italy a testing ground for Sampaoli's Argentina plans
How frustrating it must be for Italy, consigned to a summer watching on television, to be viewed as warm-up material for those sides who made it to Russia. They will face England next Tuesday but first provide the opposition for Argentina at the Etihad Stadium -- guinea pigs for the next phase of Jorge Sampaoli's revolution rather than rivals for the game's biggest prize. Sergio Aguero will miss out on the novelty of an international fixture at his club ground, but Argentina are otherwise at full strength and will look to show that their manager's high-intensity style is starting to shine through. Lionel Messi continues to dazzle on all stages for Barcelona, but Sampaoli has made a big call in dropping Paulo Dybala. The Juventus forward has become a player who can decide games at the highest level -- like the recent Champions League tie with Tottenham -- but needs to convince his national team coach that he can fit into his methods. Prolific Inter striker Mauro Icardi misses out as well: It shows how spoiled Argentina are in attacking areas, and a high-octane performance against the Italians would heighten the thought they can do without both players this summer.
Salah and Ronaldo face off in Zurich
Is Mohamed Salah the best forward in Europe at the moment? He is certainly the hottest property, and on Friday, when Egypt face Portugal, he will come up against an opponent who has been there before. This is almost certainly Cristiano Ronaldo's last shot at a World Cup, and, although he is no longer the kind of explosive wide forward Salah has become, he carries just as much weight of expectation for his national team. These are two sides that stand a chance of making deep runs in the tournament if their talismen are firing; the outcome of this friendly, which will be played in Zurich, may matter little, but a statement performance from either player could prove instructive.
Spain to test Germany's embarrassment of riches
Last week, a graphic did the rounds on Twitter showing the number of options -- on average three top-class alternatives in each position -- Joachim Low should be able to call upon for Germany's World Cup defence. Germany have an embarrassment of riches at the moment, as last summer's Confederations Cup win with at best a second-string selection underlined. Germany are now 21 games unbeaten, and although Spain will provide a test of strength, it will take some performance from Julen Lopetegui's team to end that run. Lopetegui has had as much reason as Low to puzzle over his selection, with Alvaro Morata, Cesc Fabregas, Juan Mata and Javi Martinez among those left out for these friendlies. Diego Costa is back in, though, and, should he slot seamlessly into a side that has lacked a consistent striker in his absence, Spain may just have the cutting edge needed to mount a serious assault on the trophy they won in 2010. Friday's meeting in Dusseldorf will be a bout of light sparring in comparison to the real thing, but there should be plenty of clues as to how two of the better-stocked squads are likely to shape up on the world's biggest stage.
Iceland experience life without Sigurdsson
Two and a half years ago, Iceland could not have imagined they would be here, spending 10 days in the United States to prepare for their World Cup bow. Santa Clara, California, is essentially a home venue for Mexico, but Heimir Hallgrimsson's team are made of strong enough stuff to cope with that. Of more interest might be how they cope without Gylfi Sigurdsson, their star turn, who should be back from a knee injury in time for the World Cup but whose match fitness could be in the balance. It is fair to say Iceland have been more than the sum of their parts in getting this far; the occasional flash of brilliance in Sigurdsson's absence would go down well, though, and this could be the chance for Albert Gudmundsson, the 20-year-old PSV Eindhoven winger who scored a hat trick against Indonesia two months ago, to step up against top opposition. His clubmate Hirving Lozano, meanwhile, will be looking to further his own claim as Mexico's rising star when Russia 2018 comes around.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.