MX23RW : Friday, December 14 15:22:47

This week's biggest games in world football

Sports Mole picks out the biggest and most important matches from all corners of the globe over the next seven days.

International football takes centre stage over the next week as managers are given another chance to whittle down their squads ahead of the 2018 World Cup.

Not all teams will be competing in Russia this summer, of course, with a number of big-name sides falling short in the recent qualifying campaign.

A number of tasty international showdowns have been lined up for the next seven days, and if it is club action you are after then the English Football League is still in full swing in the bottom two tiers.

Here, Sports Mole highlights some of the biggest games taking place across the globe over the coming days.


Germany vs. Spain (Friday, 7.45pm)

The last two winners of the World Cup lock horns in Dusseldorf on Friday night in arguably the pick of the friendlies. Germany, again backed to go all the way in Russia a few months from now, will look to continue building some momentum by claiming the scalp of one the tournament's other fancied sides.

A look at the squad lists for this latest clash between the heavyweight nations, even accounting for those absent through injury, shows just why they have been tipped by many to once again make it deep in the competitions.

While Germany were, as ever, cruising through the qualifying process, ending with 30 points from 30, Spain had a slightly trickier time of things as they had to hold off fellow big boys Italy. The Azzurri soon faded away, though, with La Roja's 3-0 win in September 2017 proving to be a key result - they did not look back from there and could also afford to take their foot off the gas.

Simply reaching the finals does not equate to success when it comes to these two sides, however, as both are expected to win the whole things. With just 84 days to go until Russia 2018 gets up and running, Julen Lopetegui and Joachim Low have the unenviable task of reducing their squad to just 23 players - good luck with that!

A third of the previous encounters have finished all square, but goals can surely be expected at the Esprit Arena as Germany have scored three or more in five of their last 10 matches; Spain in six of theirs.

While the result may not be the most important thing in North Rhine-Westphalia, neither manager will want to pass up the chance to get one over on one of their biggest rivals this close to the finals.


Netherlands vs. England (Friday 7.45pm)

England are also continuing preparations for the quadrennial competition, yet opponents Netherlands will not be in Russia as they have missed out on qualification for the second tournament running.

Following the disappointment of failing to reach Euro 2016, Oranje once again faced humiliation of sorts as their conveyor belt of talent seemingly came to a halt just when a new star was needed.

A bit of context is required, though. The Netherlands were pitted in a group with France, who quite arguably boast the best squad anywhere on the planet pound-for-pound, and Sweden themselves are certainly no pushovers. That said, a side of this stature, with so much history and prestige, should not have to wait at least six years between tournament participations.

This could therefore be seen as the start of a new era for the Euro '88 winners, now under the management of Ronald Koeman who is himself attempting to get his career back on track following a hugely disappointing end to his Everton tenure earlier this season.

Experimentation will likely be the key word for the hosts, with this match offering a chance to build for the future - only seven of the 25-man squad selected have made more than 20 outings for the senior side.


Italy vs. Argentina (Friday 7.45pm)

Another giant of the international game to fall short in the qualifying process, Italy are very much a side in mourning in more ways than one. The recent passing of Fiorentina skipper Davide Astori provided some much-needed context, and now Gianluigi Buffon - involved despite his end-of-season retirement plans - has vowed to make his former teammate proud.

The Azzurri, four time winners of the World Cup, begin their rebuilding process with Luigi Di Biagio in temporary charge. Italian football chiefs have drawn up a shortlist of names to succeed Gian Piero Ventura, sacked after the disaster of missing out on a place in the upcoming Euros, which is topped by current Chelsea boss Antonio Conte.

Regardless of who is in charge come their next competition game, Italy must learn how to win games again. As strange as that may sound for a powerhouse, they have failed to pick up back-to-back victories in close to a year, losing twice and drawing twice in their last six outings.

Argentina could so easily have been in the same boat as their opponents, requiring some Lionel Messi brilliance against Ecuador in October to lift them into one of the three automatic qualification spots. Messi himself has admitted that this could be the current crop's last chance to win something, though, having fallen short in three finals. Now is the time for them to prove that they mean business.


Germany vs. Brazil (Tuesday, 7.45pm)

Perhaps more so than any other side, you know exactly what you are going to get with Germany. Whether grinding out results or dismantling opponents, Die Mannschaft are a consistent force when it comes to not only qualifying but then making it to the latter stages of tournaments.

Brazil, on the other hand, have had to rebuild following the disaster of four years ago when they were, quite simply, humiliated in front of their millions of supporters. A World Cup on home soil was supposed to end just one way for the Samba stars - unfortunately for them they came up against an inspired Germany in the semi-finals, going down 7-1 in a match that will go down in history.

As was the case on that fateful night in Belo Horizonte, Brazil will once again be without star man Neymar against the Germans. A chance for others to step up, then, with Brazil looking to justify just why they are second favourites - behind their opponents - to lift a sixth crown.

In what is the first meeting between the sides since the 7-1 thrashing, when Germany were five up inside half an hour, the Olympiastadion could witness another potential classic. Brazil has lost just one of their last 17 matches - that being an end-of-season friendly against Argentina - while Germany are 21 without defeat. Little wonder that these two sides have been tipped by so many to go all the way later this year.


England vs. Italy (Tuesday, 7.45pm)

Having taken on the job in strange circumstances, with predecessor Sam Allardyce sacked after just one game in charge, Gareth Southgate managed to guide England to the finals with minimal fuss. That, as has always been the case in the life of an England manager, counts for very little - the task is to make it out of the group stage in Russia and progress past the first knockout round.

Southgate has had to contend with talk that this is England's weakest-ever group of players, epitomised by the call-up for Jake Livermore merely for, to paraphrase the man in charge, 'turning up to the last set of friendlies'. Other, more exciting players, have also been included in the Three Lions' squad for these spring friendlies, though, including the likes of James Tarkowski and Lewis Cook.

Nick Pope, too, is in line for his international debut, looking to take advantage of the uncertainty that still surrounds the number one jersey so close to the finals. Joe Hart is expected to play against either the Netherlands or Italy, freeing the way for one of England's three back-up stoppers to battle it out for minutes in the other match.

These are the games that could well shape England's squad for the finals, particularly when it comes to the formation. Three at the back, if reports are to be believed, is the shape that Southgate will go with against Italy next week. The Italians' golden crown may have slipped over the past year, but should the Three Lions produce a solid display on Tuesday, Southgate may have fewer decisions to take care of.


Spain vs. Argentina (Tuesday 8pm)

Another of the prestige friendlies to take place over the international break sees Spain lock horns with Argentina. Lopetegui still has a number of selection decisions to make with the days ticking down until the summer, including which of his strikers - if any - leads the line.

Alvaro Morata played an important part in the qualifiers with his goals, but his poor form at Chelsea since Christmas has cost him a place in the latest squad and now Diego Costa, ironically the man Morata was signed to replace at Stamford Bridge, has a chance to shine.

It is a similar story in midfield, too, where La Roja boast a reserve squad of players that would likely be capable of making it to the advanced rounds of the World Cup. As it is, many of them will not even be on the plane and therefore this second of the friendlies against Argentina takes on added importance.

Any match involving Argentina will inevitably see attention turned to Messi, of course, and this is a de facto derby of sorts for the little maestro having spent half of his life living in Spain. With their WC opener against Iceland fast approaching, La Albiceleste will themselves be hoping to find the magic formula in attack.


Charlton Athletic vs. Plymouth Argyle (Saturday, 3pm)

No doubt rattled by the departure of Karl Robinson on Thursday morning, just hours before he was appointed by division rivals Oxford United, Charlton go in search of a much-needed win on Saturday afternoon.

The Addicks have taken one point from the last 12 on offer, coming in their most recent outing at home to Fleetwood Town, and they must now end that run against the third tier's most in-form side in Plymouth.

Wigan Athletic, themselves primed for a top-two finish, are the only team to have stopped Argyle in their tracks since December 2. To put that into some perspective, the Pilgrims were languishing in a relegation dogfight in the opening throes of the campaign but are now into the top six.

Far from an ideal first match for Lee Bowyer to take charge of, then, although if the hosts can pull off what would be considered an upset by claiming victory, just two points will separate the two sides in a fascinating battle for the playoffs.


Fleetwood Town vs. Northampton Town (Saturday 3pm)

Things are starting to get exciting at the opposite end of the table, too, best summed up by the fact that victory for Northampton at Fleetwood this weekend could take them out of the dropzone and into 18th.

That would be at the expense of Fleetwood, who are just a couple of points better off ahead of this huge showdown after recently going nine matches without a win.

Six successive defeats were followed up by three draws on the spin, leaving the Cod Army in serious trouble and making the 2-0 win at Rochdale in midweek all the more important for John Sheridan. The 53-year-old was brought in last month and has at least made his side tough to beat in recent weeks.

Now comes this cup final of sorts against Northampton at Highbury Stadium, knowing that back-to-back wins for the first time this calendar year will give them some room to breathe as the finishing line approaches.


Other fixtures to look out for:

Exeter City vs. Swindon Town

Moving down the divisions, two sides with aspirations of replacing Fleetwood and Northampton in League One lock horns at St James Park. Exeter are three points and three places better off than Swindon, but the visitors have collected more points over the last four matches and are closing in.

Russia vs. Brazil

Russia have been accustomed to playing friendlies over the past two years, having been granted an automatic berth to the World Cup on home soil. A 3-3 draw with a fairly strong Spain side in their most recent outing showed what they are capable of on their day, and they have lost just one of their last seven matches ahead of back-to-back games against Brazil and France.

Portugal vs. Netherlands

European champions Portugal finally managed to shake off a determined Switzerland side in qualifying and are now unbeaten in their last 13 matches in normal time - the exception being a penalty shootout loss to Chile in the Confederations Cup. Egypt and then the Netherlands will provide contrasting tests over the two-week international break, concluding with this friendly in Geneva.

Alajuelense vs. Deportivo Saprissa:

First takes on third in the Costa Rican top flight, with Alajuelense attempting to open up a gap at the summit. The tight nature at the top end of the division means that just four point separate the top four, so it is all to play for at the Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto.

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A general shot of a Premier League football ahead of the Premier League clash between Everton and West Ham United at Goodison Park on October 30, 2016
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Tables
TeamPWDLFAGDPTS
1Liverpool1613303462842
2Manchester CityMan City1613214593641
3Tottenham HotspurSpurs16120430161436
4Chelsea16104233132034
5Arsenal16104235201534
6Manchester UnitedMan Utd167542826226
7Everton166642319424
8Bournemouth167272526-123
9Leicester CityLeicester166462120122
10Wolverhampton WanderersWolves166461719-222
11West Ham UnitedWest Ham166372325-221
12Watford166372023-321
13Brighton & Hove AlbionBrighton166371922-321
14Cardiff CityCardiff1642101530-1514
15Newcastle UnitedNewcastle163491322-913
16Crystal Palace1633101323-1012
17Burnley1633101532-1712
18Huddersfield TownHuddersfield1624101027-1710
19Southampton161691330-179
20Fulham1623111640-249

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