International break W2W4: Nations League takes its first steps, world champions meet
With the international break upon us, and friendlies and Nations League action beginning on Thursday, Nick Ames looks ahead to the biggest story lines of the week of international football.
UEFA's new brainchild takes its first steps
European football's governing body must have been doing cartwheels at the way in which this summer's World Cup breathed life back into international football. It means the first round of Nations League fixtures holds genuine allure, with the prospect of the matches themselves providing more talking points than the competition's labyrinthine structure. If games like France vs. Germany, England vs. Spain and -- next week -- Portugal vs. Italy serve up some memorable action, then the prospects will look good, although there are questions lower down the ladder, too.
For teams like Luxembourg and Moldova, who face each other in League D on Saturday, the stakes are higher than you might expect. Fare well in the next 10 days and suddenly a shot at backdoor Euro 2020 qualification looks a distinct possibility. Fail to pick up points and the risk is that by the end of this international break that prospect has already receded, leaving the losers with what would effectively be four unappetising friendlies against lowly opponents.
This competition's format allows traditional minnows a realistic chance of the limelight, but for many of them the danger is that it will not stay interesting for very long. The immediate measure of its success, though, will no doubt be the extent to which it captures the big guns' imaginations.
Old and new world champions meet
How quickly the mood has changed around both Germany and France. Thursday's hosts have spent their summer soul searching after their disastrous World Cup exit, and Joachim Low was in full "mea culpa" mode in dissecting their downfall last week. The row around Mesut Ozil's departure from international football has hardly helped either, and Germany could do with a win -- or at least a rousing performance -- in Munich to stop the storm clouds growing darker. The fact that their opponents have only just replaced them as world champions should focus a few minds.
For their part, France still feel jubilant after their triumph in Moscow and will not want to let up now. They did not always thrill on their way to the trophy but were worthy winners. Such is their depth of quality that they should be aiming to achieve the kind of dynastic success that once seemed to be within Germany's grasp. That will be the next big test for Didier Deschamps, who answered many of his critics with his own performance in Russia. The Allianz Arena, and the curtain-raiser to a brand-new competition, would not be a bad stage to announce that France are in this for the long haul.
England seek to build on summer of smiles
The feelgood factor around England's national team sprang up from almost nowhere, and Gareth Southgate wants to keep the good times rolling. He has been faithful to the core of the squad that took them to the semifinals in Russia, missing only Ashley Young -- who has been dropped from the squad -- the injured Raheem Sterling and recent virtual retirees Jamie Vardy and Gary Cahill.
Continuity is king for now and, on Saturday, Spain will provide an opportune test of the lessons they learned during the summer. A harsh reading of England's performance would be that they ultimately fell short when they faced opposition of genuine quality -- in the form of Belgium, twice, and Croatia -- so it would do no harm to set down a marker now against visitors with their own point to prove.
Spain, now under the charge of Luis Enrique, need to clear the cobwebs from a World Cup that was effectively over when Julen Lopetegui was sent home on its eve. It is a new era for them after the international retirements of Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta and David Silva; winning at Wembley would not be a bad way to show that their new coach can manage the transition.
Denmark dispute spills into farce
So far so good, then, where Nations League storylines are concerned. How strange and unfortunate that it is Denmark, not exactly a football country you would associate with upheaval, who stand to add a farcical element to proceedings.
Unless a dispute surrounding their first-choice squad's commercial rights is solved -- and time is fast running out for that -- they will field a team of low-ranking domestic-based players for a friendly with Slovakia and a Nations League tie with Wales. Instead of Christian Eriksen and Kasper Schmeichel, their opponents can expect to face players from the Danish second tier and, according to some reports, the country's futsal squad. The latter should, at least, not be found wanting technically.
There will be a familiar face in the dugout, with former Arsenal midfielder John Jensen stepping in for Age Hareide, who will not take up his own position either. How unseemly it all appears, although the door has been left open for a last-minute change of heart.
"Let's renew the old [commercial] deal by one month," Eriksen said. "Sign up and we will sit on the plane immediately."
As things stand, a team of unknowns looks set to get its big chance in one of the oddest international selections Europe has witnessed in recent times.
African sides tread the road to Cameroon ... or elsewhere
Cameroon, newly coached by Clarence Seedorf and his assistant Patrick Kluivert, will be well advised to take their Africa Cup of Nations qualifier in Comoros seriously. As things stand, they are effectively a "ghost" team in Group B, their qualification for next year's tournament assured through their status as hosts. But the doubts about that are growing: the Confederation of African Football president, Ahmad Ahmad, admitted last month that he is "not sure Cameroon is ready to host the AFCON," with a number of stadiums running late and facilities for the expanded tournament barely up to scratch. Instability in the English-speaking areas of the country is also an issue.
A decision should be made by the end of the month, with Morocco mooted as a late stand-in. It certainly adds to the early pressure on the Indomitable Lions' Dutch pair.
There are big games elsewhere, too. Nigeria must win in Seychelles to keep pace with Libya and South Africa in Group E, while Ivory Coast and Egypt are seeking three points against Rwanda and Niger respectively to make amends for poor starts of their own. The big hitters will not want to miss out on next summer's carnival. Where it will take place, though, is anyone's guess.