Ah the international break, so easy to make fun of. So often cast as an inferior distraction from meaningful domestic endeavours. Derided by Sam Allardyce as a way for “football associations to make money with stupid bloody friendlies.”
But, for a change, the upcoming internationals held around the world – not just in Europe – provide genuine excitement, no matter what the naysayers will have you believe.
World Cup qualifiers continue in South America, where Ecuador lead with a 100 percent record after four games and Argentina sit outside the automatic spots, and in Europe, preparation for France begins to move through the gears.
For the home nations that groundwork has never been more important, with an unprecedented number of participants heading to Euro 2016 from the British Isles.
With each of them playing two games during the break, here’s three stroy lines to follow for those sides over the next week:
Lafferty limbering up
Northern Ireland’s first ever trip to the European Championships was sealed by a greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts squad. However, within that tight-knit group one player shone.
Kyle Lafferty’s seven goals during qualification were only bettered by five men, yet the striker has managed just 45 minutes of senior football for Norwich this season.
If he’s to gain enough match fitness to give Michael O’Neill’s side a fighting chance this summer, he must use his time with the national side wisely.
He’s 13/2 to open the scoring against Wales.
Can Wales go Bale-less?
A calf injury means Chris Coleman will be without the driving force behind his historical Euros qualification campaign in the upcoming friendlies.
While doing without the talents of Gareth Bale is an obvious annoyance, it allows the Welsh manager to find out just how well his side can cope if faced with another injury to the Real Madrid man come tournament time.
Aaron Ramsey was Wales’ next best scorer during qualifying. That the Arsenal man achieved the honour having scored just twice, and is also absent this week, paints a clear picture of Coleman’s task.
Games against Northern Ireland and Ukraine provide the chance for someone else to stick their head above the parapet.
Scotland’s lurch toward the future
While the rest of the Home Nations excitedly work out Euro 2016 kinks, Scotland can do nothing but look on adoringly.
However, friendlies with Czech Republic and Denmark are far from meaningless, especially as Gordan Strachan has put a youthful twist on his squad.
Ten players aged 24 or younger were handed call ups by the former Celtic boss, including two 18-year-olds.
It’s a clear indication that Strachan is looking to develop the experience of Scotland’s best prospects ahead of a World Cup qualifying campaign that – beyond England – provides beatable opposition.
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.