England and Scotland need a boost; Ronaldo two goals behind Gerd Muller
2018 World Cup Qualification picks back up during the November international break. Miguel Delaney looks ahead to the action.
Can England and Scotland get back on track? England vs. Scotland (Nov. 12)
The buildup to this fixture has been shrouded by the controversy over the federations' wish to wear poppies, but this is a match with so much riding on it. Both are looking to recover from quite different recent humiliations. Although Gareth Southgate was already in charge against Malta after Sam Allardyce's controversial departure, this latest staging of a historic rivalry will be his first proper test; the first time we get to see whether this squad has been affected by the managerial upheaval. They will be tested, however, by a team facing a lot of uncertainty themselves. After going to so close to reaching the playoffs of the Euro 2016 qualifiers, Scotland seem to have fallen apart. They drew 1-1 at home to Lithuania, and then got thrashed 3-0 away to Slovakia in their last game. It has left manager Gordon Strachan on the brink, so he badly needs to respond with a big result. England, meanwhile, need to restore a sense of normality.
Can France continue to show they might yet come to fruition? France vs. Sweden (Nov. 12)
It is impossible to separate France and Sweden. They both have seven points after three games and have both scored five and conceded one, having both put in unconvincing and promising performances in this group so far. This game, however, will properly show how close they really are. The indications are that it is not that close at all. While a young Swedish side have responded to Zlatan Ibrahimovic's retirement and the failure of Euro 2016's first-round exit better than expected, they are still someway short of France's quality. Didier Deschamps' side have also responded well to the disappointment of losing the Euro 2016 final at home to Portugal. Despite kicking off this group with an underwhelming 0-0 draw away to Belarus, they quickly found their rhythm, and impressively destroyed Bulgaria 4-1 before so easily defeating a poor Dutch team 1-0 in Amsterdam. Paul Pogba put in a match-winning performance against the Netherlands, scoring the only goal to provide the perfect answer to so much criticism of his display against Bulgaria. It also offered signs that he might finally have figured out his best role for France. This match will tell us much more.
A decisive day in Group D? Austria vs. Ireland, Wales vs. Serbia (Nov. 13)
Group D is perhaps the tightest of all, given that it has no heavyweight teams, but instead four sides of similar quality. This is also one of just two days in this qualification series where those four face off. Austria host Ireland in Vienna before Wales take on Serbia in Cardiff. It brings another big swing in a group that has already seen some big movements. Austria are under the most pressure, having dropped three points so far by drawing with Wales at home and losing to Serbia 3-2 away. It feels like Marcel Koller's side still haven't recovered from the embarrassing first-round exit at Euro 2016, and still haven't found their rhythm. Meanwhile, David Alaba has come under criticism for his performances for the national side. That means a match with Ireland comes at a particularly bad time, given how awkward Martin O'Neill's side are to play against. The Irish are second in the table on goal difference, just behind a Serbian team who are growing together. They will feel confident against a Welsh side who have lost some of their own momentum, having drawn at home with Georgia in the last round of games. The Georgians are a team that could yet further skew this most competitive of groups.
Can Cristiano Ronaldo's goals make more landmarks? Portugal vs. Latvia (Nov. 14)
In the same week he secured his long-term future at Real Madrid by signing a new contract, Ronaldo can also add to his legacy with his country. He is currently the sixth highest scorer in European international football history, on 66 goals, only behind Gerd Muller, Robbie Keane, Miroslav Klose, Sandor Kocsis and Ferenc Puskas. While he is unlikely to match Puskas's haul of 84, Ronaldo is just two behind Muller and Keane, and seems to be on a hot run of form for his country. The Real Madrid star hit four goals in an international game for the first time in his career last October, as Portugal smashed Andorra 6-0. The European champions look like they are coming back to form after slipping up in a 2-0 defeat to Switzerland, and their big star looks hungry for more goals.
Miguel Delaney covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MiguelDelaney.