International W2W4: England, Italy face relegation; Brazil, Argentina meet again
Club football takes another break as the eyes of the world turn to the international game. Among the highlights are a pair of tough away tests for England and the renewal of a fierce rivalry in an unlikely venue. Watch the UEFA Nations League in the U.S. on ESPN+.
England need points from away games
Friday's clash between Croatia and England is not simply about settling scores from July's World Cup semifinal, which the Croats won 2-1 after extra-time. There are UEFA Nations League points to be won, and after the hosts' 6-0 capitulation in Spain last month, optimism is rife that they can get their campaign up and running without opening old wounds.
Gareth Southgate's men had reasons to be cheerful, despite their own narrow defeat to likely group winners Spain, but meetings with Croatia this month and next -- with a trip to Seville in between -- resemble playoffs against relegation for England. In order to keep their sense of breezy momentum alive, it is important that they begin picking up positive results in competitive games.
The lack of home support in Rijeka -- UEFA sanctions mean the game will be played behind closed doors -- could play into England's hands and will certainly make for an eerie feel. However, even if the atmosphere is not white-hot, it will be a baptism of fire for the likes of Jadon Sancho, Mason Mount and James Maddison.
Their inclusion marks the next phase in the evolution of Southgate's squad and suggest creativity and expression are high on his list of improvement points. There is particular attention on what 18-year-old Sancho, who has eight assists to his name for Borussia Dortmund this season, might add to the speed and flair at his country's disposal.
Rapid rematch for France, Germany; Dutch doubts
Last month's goalless draw between world champions past and present in Munich was not exactly a thriller, though it did at least stop the rot for ailing Germany. On Saturday, Joachim Low & Co. have a chance to feel even better about themselves at struggling Netherlands, beaten 2-1 in France last time out, but Paris three days later will pose the definitive test for Die Mannschaft.
Low admitted recently that his side were "missing the passion" in Russia, and there were positive signs in September, when they would have beaten France had Aphonse Areola not been on top form. However, relegation to League B would not be a good look for Germany, and at least one win is required from these two games to reduce that possibility.
The same goes for Ronald Koeman's Dutch side, who seem lower on quality and depth than at any time in recent memory. The Netherlands manager believes his players, who were frustrated by a late defeat in Paris, are "on the right track," but it seems a stretch to believe this group can challenge to lead the group. Staying in it would represent a considerable achievement.
Argentina, Brazil do battle in Saudi Arabia
By staging a four-team tournament featuring international football's most famous rivalry, Saudi Arabia has shown that it means business with regard to its desire for increased influence in the football world. However, though Argentina and Brazil will meet in Jeddah next Tuesday -- having played Iraq and their hosts respectively before the end of this week -- it might be a watered-down affair.
Argentina, in a transitional phase under the temporary care of Lionel Scaloni and Pablo Aimar, will not unleash the likes of Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria. Instead, they have selected a squad of which only three players have won more than 20 caps. It means the likes of Mauro Icardi and Paulo Dybala should get more chances to impress and offer more international experience to younger players such as Giovanni Simeone and Lautaro Martinez.
Brazil, meanwhile, look more self-assured. Their squad is close to full-strength, and Richarlison, the Everton forward, will hope to build on the two goals he scored vs. El Salvador last month. Arthur, who was so impressive in Barcelona's Champions League win over Tottenham, will also be involved.
It is a chance for both countries to show that they are recovering and regenerating after falling short at the World Cup. But if it does develop into a full-blooded thriller, the real winners might be the aspirational Saudis.
Can Jorginho and Verratti turn the tide for Italy?
Defeat for Italy in Poland would all but confirm what has seemed true for some time: The Azzurri no longer belong among Europe's top national teams.
They will be relegated from League A of the Nations League if their form does not turn around dramatically, and nobody would hold out too much hope of that; since last October, Italy have played nine times and won just once -- narrowly at that -- against a poor Saudi Arabia side.
It has certainly not been a glowing honeymoon period for Roberto Mancini, and he has dropped out-of-form Mario Balotelli from these October assignments, which begin with a Wednesday friendly against Ukraine ahead of Sunday's match in Chorzow.
Italy need big performances from Jorginho, who has begun the season wonderfully at Chelsea, and Marco Verratti, who is in a Mancini squad for the first time after recovering from injury. On paper, this should be one of the best midfield partnerships on the planet. If Mancini can get them up to full speed, Italy could yet find a way out of their current mess.
The race for an unlikely Euro 2020 place
Georgia, Luxembourg, Kosovo, Macedonia: If the UEFA Nations League came to a halt now, one of those four countries would be guaranteed a place at the European Championship through the playoff system for group winners of League D. The thought seems improbable, but it is exciting and means the two October matchdays are stacked with significance.
On current form, Georgia and Macedonia seem the strongest in their quartets, but the real fascination will come if Luxembourg or Kosovo stay the course. The latter nation has only been recognised by FIFA since two-and-a-half years ago, but it always looked likely to be one of Europe's most rapid improvers, given the pool of talent at its disposal. They will be confident when hosting Malta and visiting the Faroe Islands.
Luxembourg, meanwhile, played wonderful football in thrashing Moldova last month. They are two points clear of Belarus and face them in Minsk, where they drew in the last set of World Cup qualifiers before a relatively easy assignment against San Marino. Four points from two games will leave Luc Holtz's side tantalisingly close to taking the top spot.
Even if you are not entirely comfortable with this new format, there is no denying that it has imbued some little-heralded names with unprecedented competitive intrigue.
Mauritania lead African minnows seeking history
If the gates have been thrown open to Europe's minnows ahead of the continent's next tournament, something similar can be said in Africa. The Cup of Nations has been expanded to 24 teams and, with the qualifying process for the 2019 tournament passing the halfway mark over the next week, several unfamiliar names are well placed to make it through.
Perhaps the most eye-catching is Mauritania, who top Group I. Organisational, financial and political issues have hampered the Saharan country down the years, but a 2-0 home win over Burkina Faso last month suggested that the current team -- managed by ex-France international Corentin Martins and boasting a number of Europe-based players -- might have what it takes. If they come out of a double-header with Angola in credit, they could have at least one foot in the finals.
Burundi, who can call upon Stoke forward Saido Berahino, are another smaller country to have started well, though imminent back-to-back meetings with Mali might prove decisive for their hopes. Among the more established teams in a spot of trouble are Nigeria, who surely need maximum points from two games with Libya.