Hungary v England
With just 170 days until England begin their World Cup campaign in Qatar, all eyes will be on Gareth Southgate’s men when they return to action in Hungary tonight in the UEFA Nations League.
England have plenty of momentum, they are on their longest ever unbeaten streak, 22 games (discounting the penalty shootout defeat to Italy). Last September they swept aside Hungary 4-0 in the Puskas Arena in Budapest with skipper Harry Kane among the scorers.
Hungary won’t be ‘supported’ here by their usual raucous atmosphere. There will be 35,000 in attendance but this will predominantly be local families and children with the normal ‘ultra’ fan base banned due to their racial abuse of the English players when they played back in September.
English players therefore won’t have to cope with the usual formidable atmosphere in Budapest, instead, it will be quite the opposite- I expect a very relaxed atmosphere in which to play football and the Hungarians will lose a substantial portion of their home advantage as a result.
They haven’t actually been strong at home for quite a while now, having won just two of their last six home matches in all competitions, and even then those successes were against European minnows in San Marino and Andorra.
The English are expected to go strong here too. They have some injury issues but no real key players are missing with Ben White, Tomori, and Guehi all unlikely to have started or even been involved anyway. Phil Foden will be a miss due to COVID but England are stacked in attacking areas and have so much quality to adequately fill in.
This is all about building momentum for Qatar for Southgate and his men where the English will unquestionably be amongst the favourites. They battered the same opponent 4-0 in their last meeting on this ground just 9 months ago and I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see something similar this evening.
Italy v Germany
Less than six months before a World Cup and the Germans are starting to look ominous. How many times have we seen that before?
Hansi Flick took over at the helm of Die Mannschaft after their Euro 2020 Last 16 exit to England last summer and has made an immediate impact, guiding his side to eight wins from his nine games in charge, the other a creditable draw away in a friendly in the Netherlands last time out in late March.
They have only conceded three goals in those nine games and although the opposition hasn’t been the most illustrious in European football, they have netted 34 goals. With Japan and either Costa Rica or New Zealand in their group in Qatar you can already envisage Germany making it through to the knockout stages of yet another major competition this winter.
You can’t say the same for Italy, who won’t even be there.
In the eight matches since football ‘Came to Rome’ last summer, Italy have been largely woeful, their only victories came in a WCQ against Lithuania and in a friendly against Turkey, in which they trailed before winning 3-2. They drew four qualifiers against Bulgaria, Switzerland and Northern Ireland before being stunned 1-0 at home to North Macedonia in the World Cup play-off.
The reigning European Champions were swept aside 3-0 by Argentina in the Finalissima at Wembley on Wednesday night and though they’ll benefit from those 90 minutes in their legs here, the result surely won’t help their psyche.
Boss Roberto Mancini has resisted calls to resign and is trying to weather the storm but he will have to shuffle his pack to deal with a series of injuries as well as the retirement of Giorgio Chiellini after Wednesday night’s game.
While Germany have built up momentum against Europe’s lesser lights, this is a much-needed test for them and I can see them beginning their Nations League campaign with a positive result. The 1.57 on Germany to win, draw no bet, is where my money is going.
Portugal v Switzerland
There were plenty of eyebrows raised when Portugal boss Fernando Santos left Cristiano Ronaldo on the bench for Thursday night’s UEFA Nations League opener against Spain in Seville.
The 37-year-old was omitted for ‘tactical’ reasons with Andre Silva preferred leading the lead, however he did come on to win his 187th cap in the second half and played a part in the equaliser, dragging two defenders and three midfielders out of position to create space for a break down the right and a cross which Ricardo Horta converted.
We all know how dangerous a riled up Ronaldo can be and I fear for Switzerland here. The last time Ronaldo faced these opponents he bagged a hat-trick in the semi-finals of the Nations League in 2019 and should he be restored to the side by Santos I can only imagine he’s going to have a point to prove.
Switzerland went down 2-1 against the Czech Republic in their opening group game and November’s home win against Bulgaria was their only victory in their last five matches.
The Swiss actually have the better head-to-head record against Portugal with 10 wins to their hosts’ eight, however I am backing the hosts to close the gap with a win here.
Ronaldo to score anytime is hugely tempting at 1.91 but, just in case the manager has any more tricks up his sleeve, I’m going to stick with the hosts to pick up their first win in this year’s competition at 1.67.
Serbia v Slovenia
Serbia lost their opening match of the new UEFA Nations League campaign by a solitary goal on Thursday at the hands of Norway, however in truth the scoreline really did not reflect the match.
Erling Haaland poached the only goal just before the half hour despite Serbia having 57% possession, 13 shots on goal and winning 12 corners to the Scandinavians’ zero in a game they bossed infront of their own fans.
I’m backing Dragan Stojkovic’s side to get it right on Sunday night and see-off Slovenia as they seek to earn promotion to the top-tier of the Nations League. The visitors went down 2-0 at home to Group B’s other Scandinavian side, Sweden, on Thursday and are strong favourites for relegation back to the third tier at the first time of asking.
The hosts are missing perhaps their best player in the form of Juventus frontman Dusan Vlahovic and though Fulham hot-shot Aleksandar Mitrovic is a more than adequate deputy with 45 international goals to his name. There might be a spot of rotation with four Nations League fixtures in the space of 10 days. Real Madrid’s Luka Jovic will be hoping for an opportunity to get on the field up-top too and boost his stock less than six months before the World Cup gets underway.
Either way there is class running throughout the Serbia squad which the Slovenians just cannot match. Serbia stunned Portugal with a last-minute Mitrovic goal to send them straight through to Qatar and they can use these games to prepare for the tests to come against Brazil, Cameroon and Switzerland in the winter.
These sides have only met twice before, playing out a 1-1 draw in Serbia in European Championship qualifying in 2010 before Slovenia picked up a 1-0 win in the return the following year. I’m backing the hosts to register their first competitive win here against a side who could only draw with Qatar in a friendly in March and who lost to Cyprus in their World Cup Qualifying group, in which they finished fourth.
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