MX23RW : Friday, January 18 22:54:17

This week's biggest games in football

Sports Mole rounds up the matches not to be missed during the international break, including high-profile friendlies and crucial World Cup qualifiers.

Club football will take a back seat over the next week or so as the final international break of 2017 gets underway, with star-studded friendlies and crucial World Cup qualifiers amongst the fixtures to look out for.

Next summer's World Cup is now just seven months away and those who have already booked their seat on the plane will be getting their preparations underway in earnest over the coming days.

There are plenty of teams still sweating over their place in Russia, though, and it will be a fateful break for teams from Europe, Africa, South America, Central America and Australasia coming up.

Here, Sports Mole picks out the biggest matches to take note of during the international break.

England vs. Germany (Friday, 8pm)

Sami Khedira and Eric Dier in action during the international friendly between Germany and England on March 26, 2016© AFP

Always a fixture which stirs up the emotions, England will host world champions Germany on Friday night bidding to claim a major scalp in their penultimate game of the year.

The Gareth Southgate era has not been particularly inspiring so far, with just three wins by more than one goal being registered from his 12 fixtures at the helm despite playing some minnows in qualification during that time.

The Three Lions ultimately did qualify comfortably enough, winning eight of their 10 Group F games to finish eight points clear of Slovakia, although the nature of their back-to-back 1-0 wins over Slovenia and Lithuania in the last international break raised more questions than answers for England fans.

The biggest question of all is whether England can finally live up to expectations at a major tournament, and glamour friendlies like this one should provide more of a clue - although England have failed to beat Spain, Germany and France under Southgate so far.

Germany have gone from strength to strength since their Euro 2016 semi-final exit at the hands of France, remaining unbeaten in their subsequent 19 fixtures, including a perfect record of 10 wins from 10 during qualifying - the only team not to drop a single point on their way to Russia.

No team scored more than the world champions' 43 either, and during the summer they showcased their remarkable strength in depth by winning the Confederations Cup with what was mostly a second-string team.

England have not beaten their fierce rivals on home soil since March 1975, with Colin Bell and Malcolm MacDonald providing a rare highlight in the Don Revie era.

Germany vs. France (Tuesday, 7.45pm)

Germany's defender Jerome Boateng (L) controls the ball ahead of French forward Anthony Martial during a friendly international football match between France and Germany ahead of the Euro 2016, on November 13, 2015 at the Stade de France stadium in Saint-© Getty Images

Germany will be back in action again on the Tuesday, this time taking on France in a repeat of last summer's European Championship semi-finals.

France won 2-0 on that occasion before going on to lose to Portugal in the final, but world champions Germany are unbeaten since that defeat at the hands of Les Bleus, winning 16 of their subsequent 19 outings.

Indeed, Germany have won seven matches in a row since a 1-1 Confederations Cup draw with Chile in June - a result they went on to atone for when they beat the same opponents in the final.

Should Joachim Low's side beat England on Friday then they will host Les Bleus in Koln on their best run of form since 1991, but they take on a France side who have already beaten the likes of England and Netherlands this year.

Didier Deschamps's side have also drawn with Luxembourg and lost to both Spain and Sweden, though, and it took until the final matchday for them to book their place in next summer's World Cup.

France - who host Wales on Friday night - have won each of their last three meetings with Die Mannschaft on German soil, stretching back to August 1987.

England vs. Brazil (Tuesday, 8pm)

Neymar in action for Brazil at the 2016 Olympic Games© SilverHub

Just as Germany have two high-profile friendlies, so do England, and after taking on the world champions they will then welcome the five-time World Cup winners Brazil to Wembley four days later.

It will be a depleted England squad which hosts the Selecao, with six players having already pulled out and five uncapped players included, but at the very least it should give Southgate the chance to view some players he may not otherwise have had the opportunity to test out before the World Cup.

Brazil could arrive at Wembley with all guns blazing, though. Neymar, Gabriel Jesus, Douglas Costa, Dani Alves, Philippe Coutinho, Thiago Silva and many more star names have been included in their squad for the double-header against Japan and the Three Lions.

Tite's side made light work of their World Cup qualifying campaign in the end, becoming the first team other than hosts Russia to book their place in next summer's World Cup and eventually finishing 10 points clear of the mad scramble for places below them.

Only Argentina have beaten Brazil since their humiliating exit from the group stages of the Copa America in summer 2016, with Tite overseeing 12 wins and two draws from his 15 outings at the helm so far.

England have only ever beaten Brazil four times in their history, including just once in their last 10 meetings since 1990, but that victory did come in the most recent Wembley showdown between the two as Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard scored either side of a Fred goal in February 2013.

Sweden vs. Italy (Friday, 7.45pm & Monday, 7.45pm)

Italy manager Giampiero Ventura on the touchline during the international friendly with Germany in Milan on November 15, 2016© SilverHub

The likes of Netherlands, Chile and USA have already missed out on a place at next summer's World Cup, and they could well be joined by four-time champions Italy.

The Azzurri were handed the unenviable task of vying with Spain for the one automatic qualification spot in Group G, and just one point from their two games against the fellow heavyweights ultimately proved to be the difference.

Giampiero Ventura's side finished five points adrift of Spain, but their place in the playoffs was at least safe with a 10-point gap separating them from third-placed Albania.

Italy have lost just one of their last 14 matches heading into Friday's first leg with Sweden, who themselves were drawn in a difficult qualification group alongside France and Netherlands.

An 8-0 win over Luxembourg in the penultimate group game all but secured a top-two spot for Sweden on goal difference, which they ultimately needed after losing to Netherlands on the final matchday.

Italy have not failed to qualify for the World Cup since 1958, which is the only time they have ever entered the qualification process and not made it through to the final tournament, whereas Sweden have not reached the competition since 2006.

The Swedes have lost four of their five matches against Italy this century too, so it will be the Azzurri who go into this tie as favourites.

Denmark vs. Republic of Ireland (Saturday, 7.45pm & Tuesday, 7.45pm)

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill asks 'Is it bigger than a bread bin?' during his side's Euro 2016 qualifier with Germany.© Getty Images

The European World Cup playoffs get underway on Thursday, but Denmark and Republic of Ireland will have to wait until the Saturday for their first leg, which takes place in Copenhagen.

The Danes finished second in qualifying Group E, five points adrift of Poland but four clear of Montenegro to comfortably seal at least a place in the playoffs.

Both of Denmark's qualifying defeats came in their opening three games of the campaign too, and Age Hareide's side will go into this match unbeaten in nine across all competitions - including a friendly draw with world champions Germany.

Ireland, meanwhile, only qualified for the playoffs by the skin of their teeth with a 1-0 victory away to Wales on the final matchday, leapfrogging their near-neighbours into second place in Group D as a result of that victory.

Just two points separated them from group winners Serbia in the end, with Martin O'Neill's side losing just once throughout the campaign and conceding only six goals in their 10 outings.

Ireland will be bidding to clinch World Cup qualification for the first time since 2002, while Denmark last graced the stage in 2010.

It has been more than a decade since their last meeting, and Ireland have scored seven goals without reply against Denmark in their two most recent clashes, losing only three of their 13 overall meetings and none since November 1985.

Northern Ireland vs. Switzerland (Thursday, 7.45pm & Sunday, 5pm)

Michael O'Neill during the Euro 2016 Group C match between Ukraine and Northern Ireland on July 16, 2016© AFP

Northern Ireland once again impressed during the qualifying campaign, and even defeats in their final two group games did not prevent them from clinching second place fairly comfortably.

World champions Germany were always likely to finish top of the group - and did so with a perfect record in the end - but Northern Ireland came in four points above Czech Republic and six ahead of Norway to keep their World Cup dreams alive.

Michael O'Neill's side face an almighty task against a Switzerland side who were just one match away from not only reaching the World Cup, but also joining Germany as the only team to do it with 10 wins from 10.

The Swiss won all of their opening nine Group B games, but saved the toughest task until last as they were beaten 2-0 by Portugal on the final matchday to ultimately be condemned to second place on goal difference.

Vladimir Petkovic's side will go into the tie as favourites having featured in the past three World Cups - reaching the knockout stages twice - whereas Northern Ireland have not made it to the tournament proper since 1986.

The British outfit do have the better head-to-head record, though, losing just one of their previous four meetings and keeping three clean sheets along the way.

Ivory Coast vs. Morocco (Saturday, 5.30pm)

It is still all to play for in the African section of World Cup qualifying, with the final round of group games taking place during this international break.

The most intriguing contest comes in Group C where Ivory Coast host Morocco knowing that only a victory will be enough for them to secure a place at next summer's tournament.

Ivory Coast have become World Cup regulars recently with three consecutive appearances since their debut showing in 2006, but they trail group leaders Morocco by one point heading into Saturday's winner-takes-all showdown.

Only top spot will qualify for the tournament and Morocco - who are unbeaten in six games - currently occupy that position having won two and drawn three of their five group games so far.

Morocco have not reached the World Cup since 1998, so they will be determined not to let this opportunity slip away from them having been handed a lifeline by Ivory Coast picking up only one point from the most recent international break.

Saturday's hosts have included the likes of Serge Aurier, Franck Kessie and Wilfried Zaha in their squad, though, and have only lost one of their last eight meetings with Morocco - although that did come in January's reverse fixture.

Honduras vs. Australia (Friday, 10pm & Wednesday, 9am)

Australia cannot match the pedigree of Italy, but it would still be a major shock if they didn't qualify for next summer's World Cup having featured in each of the past three tournaments.

The Socceroos face Honduras in an intercontinental playoff during this break, although they almost didn't make it this far having required grizzled veteran Tim Cahill to score an extra-time winner against Syria in the Asian qualifying playoffs.

Australia had earlier finished third in Group B behind Japan and Saudi Arabia, the latter of whom booked their place at the World Cup on goal difference after Australia could only manage a 2-1 home win over Thailand on the final matchday.

Honduras have already upset the odds to get this far, although like Australia they only missed out on an automatic World Cup place due to goal difference after finishing level on points with Panama and behind Mexico and Costa Rica.

USA's defeat to Trinidad & Tobago, coupled with Honduras's 3-2 win over Mexico, on the final matchday saw Jorge Pinto's side keep their hopes of a third consecutive World Cup alive by leapfrogging the United States into fourth.

This will be the first ever meeting between the two sides.

Other matches to look out for

South Africa vs. Senegal: These two sides are a game behind every other team in the African section of World Cup qualifying, and so meet on Friday afternoon with Senegal knowing that victory would guarantee their place in the tournament with a game to spare. A draw would leave them needing another point at least to make sure when the two sides meet again on Tuesday, while defeat would blow the group wide open and leave all four teams - Senegal, South Africa, Burkina Faso and Cape Verde Islands - in with a chance of qualifying on the final matchday.

Croatia vs. Greece: Croatia and Greece face off in the other European playoff, with the first leg taking place on Thursday and the second on Sunday. Croatia - complete with Mario Mandzukic, Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and more - finished second behind Iceland in their group, whereas Greece pipped Bosnia-Herzegovina to second place in Group H.

Tunisia vs. Libya: Tunisia only need a point at home to bottom side Libya to seal their place at the World Cup, but defeat could open the door for Congo DR, who currently sit three points behind and host Guinea on Saturday.

New Zealand vs. Peru: The other intercontinental playoff pits New Zealand against Peru on Saturday and Thursday respectively. New Zealand's only win in their last eight outings came against the Solomon Islands while Peru, who have not qualified for the World Cup since 1982, are unbeaten in their last eight games.

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