Pressure on Hiddink as home nations look to impress in Euro 2016 qualifiers
Miguel Delaney pinpoints four key storylines ahead of the next stage of qualifiers for the 2016 European Championship.
Rivalry could tip the balance of Group D
A derby between two teams very close to each other in terms of both geography and quality, but also one that could have further-reaching consequences than any other in Europe this week. It is not for nothing that Scotland manager Gordon Strachan referred to his squad's match vs. Ireland as a "cup tie".
This is the international match of the month. Two good teams are in fine form, and that has helped turn what had seemed an engaging race among three teams for two places behind Germany in Group D, into a flat-out battle among four. In the most recent round of games, Ireland claimed a stupendous late 1-1 draw away to Germany, inflicting more damage on the world champions after Poland had beaten Jogi Low's side 2-0. The Scots then further complicated the group by themselves claiming a brilliant 2-2 draw in Warsaw.
That makes this table so tight -- Poland and Ireland (seven points); Scotland and Germany (four) -- and means this one match could have multiple effects. There are also a number of strands that only deepen and reflect how close and connected these teams are, while adding frisson to the game.
For one, there was Scotland's curious decision to stage it at Celtic Park, given the stadium's historic link to Glasgow's Irish migrant population. It is also that stadium that links the two managers, given that Strachan followed Martin O'Neill as Celtic manager. The latter, however, has always been more warmly received.
For this game, former Scottish international Gordon McQueen had demanded the home crowd give Aiden McGeady and the now-injured James McCarthy a hostile reception, since both opted to play for Ireland rather than the country of their birth. That has stoked controversy and added to a dispute between the two federations over the allocation of tickets. Scotland want to ensure that a spiritually Irish stadium feels like a real Scottish home game.
It means that this is unlikely to be a match for the delicate. A victory either way, however, could mean one of these teams takes a hammer to the delicate makeup of this group so far.
Northern Ireland can claim the initiative in Group F
Two points clear in Group F, these are giddy times for Northern Ireland. If their southern neighbours are involved in the game of the month, Michael O'Neill's side may be providing one of stories of this entire qualification campaign. There would certainly be few feats in European Championship history to match what they are attempting. With a population of just over 1.8 million, they would be one of the smallest teams to ever reach the final tournament. Only Slovenia 2000 and Latvia 2004 come close, although all may be trumped by Iceland 2016 if they can maintain their place at the top of Group A.
While the latter's progress has been someway anticipated given how close they came in the 2014 World Cup -- only losing 2-0 to Croatia in a hard-fought playoff clash -- as well as all the talk about their admirable infrastructural changes, that is not the case with Northern Ireland. This has almost come out of nowhere.
With three straight wins in Group F, they have already accumulated nine points -- two more than they did in the entirety of their own 2014 campaign. That represents their best-ever start to a qualifying group, and reflects the supreme work of manager O'Neill. It is something emphasised by the hugely impressive away wins in Hungary and Greece.
Now, they face perhaps their toughest fixture with a trip to Romania, and the team closest to them in the group, on seven points. This will reveal how "real" Northern Ireland's flawless return is, or whether they benefitted from a bit of a bounce. If they continue their form, we could be talking about something very special. Either way, it sets up a special fixture for both. Northern Ireland want a place at Europe's top table for the first time ever -- and since only losing out to West Germany on goal difference in 1984 -- while Romania themselves want to capitalise on the slips by Greece, and reach their first tournament in eight years.
The final match of Guus Hiddink's Netherlands career?
Quite simply, Netherlands have to win. After a frankly appalling run, coach Guus Hiddink might be already reaching the end, although it reflects their dismal start to this group that he is under such pressure. After the Dutch side's latest mishap, a 3-2 friendly defeat to Mexico, the manager said he would resign if they lose at home to Latvia on Sunday. It would, admittedly, be the type of result that would justify the sack.
Hiddink's team have lost two of their three qualifiers in Group A so far -- to main rivals Czech Republic and Iceland, who sit six points clear at the top -- and now face a real challenge to achieve one of the automatic qualification places for Euro 2016. Dropped points -- let alone defeat to Latvia -- are too disastrous to consider. The Baltic side have also lost fewer games than Netherlands so far, with two draws from their opening three, so they are some way durable.
Netherlands' own poor return perhaps does reflect the mediocre level of the squad, and just how well Louis van Gaal did in getting to the semifinals of the 2014 World Cup, but it is still a fair expectation that an experienced coach like Hiddink should be doing much better.
At the same time, a win could really re-energise them, particularly if either the Czechs or Iceland -- if not both -- drop points in their meeting in Plzen later in the night. Hiddink can't leave it any later to get this team winning again.
Talent on show in Group B
Belgium vs. Wales is a match with plenty on the line, and plenty of talent to force the issue. One of the most exciting generations in the world face the most expensive player in history. Of course, that latter tag is one that is now going to follow every Welsh match that features 100 million euro man Gareth Bale, but the deeper point is how much his talent has enriched his international side.
It is not all about the Real Madrid forward, but he really brings out a flourish in what is a fine group. You only have to look at the ludicrously good flick for Hal Robson-Kanu's goal in Wales' recent 2-1 win over Cyprus. That is the kind of magic that just elevates the standard and always makes them so dangerous. It has also put Wales on top of this group, with seven points from three games.
At the same time, it is not like Belgium have been slack, given that their two matches so far have seen a 6-0 thrashing of Andorra and a creditable 1-1 draw away to Bosnia-Herzegovina. At Chelsea, Eden Hazard is also offering the kind of form that put such a price on Bale in the first place. The lingering issue with Belgium, however, is that manager Marc Wilmots has not put in the system to actually maximise the amount of talent in their squad.
Any win here could have maximum effect, however, given that Bosnia-Herzegovina travel to third-placed Israel on the same night.
Miguel Delaney covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MiguelDelaney.