Another international break is upon us as the Nations League takes centre stage over the weekend.
Scotland to beat Israel @ 37/20
Scotland boss Alex McLeish was under pressure last month before a 2-0 win over Albania in their first Nations League game. The experienced coach is back in charge of the Tartan Army for a second stint, with Scotland still desperate to end a 20-year hiatus from tournament football that dates back to the World Cup of France ’98.
On the face of it the Nations League is an ideal competition for a country like Scotland to earn a shot at ending that sort of barren run. Winning games against teams of similar ability can earn them a playoff and a potential seat at the expanded European Championship finals.
They travel to Israel on Thursday knowing a win sets them up well in Group C1, with the home side having lost their opening game to Albania already. Scotland have won all three previous meetings with the Israelis, though they haven’t met in more than 30 years.
After losing to Albania, Israel were dismissed 3-0 by Northern Ireland in Belfast last month on friendly duty. Their most recent win was a 1-0 success against Liechtenstein last year. Israel’s level has dropped from a place of relative strength around the turn of the decade.
Scotland should by confident after defeating Albania. If they can contain the threat of Salzburg forward Moanes Dabour – who scored twice against Celtic in the Europa League recently – McLeish’s men have enough quality to get an important win in Haifa, with the likes of Andrew Robertson sure to cause problems raiding on the flanks.
England to draw with Croatia @ 41/20
A repeat of the 2018 World Cup semi-final this game may be, but it will a far from that high-octane Russian roulette in the summer.
Croatia host England on Friday evening at the Stadion HNK Rijeka and it is going to be a private party, with the game being played behind closed doors inside an arena that would, if it could, hold just 8,000 supporters.
It will be a strange experience for all concerned and could see this Group A4 clash turning fairly sterile. Both teams have lost to Spain in their opening Nations League games, England somewhat controversially in a late 2-1 reverse at Wembley, Croatia thumped 6-0 on their travels.
Defeat for either here brings down the curtain on hopes of reaching the Nations League Finals next summer and opens the real prospect of relegation from the upper echelons of this new format.
There is less to be gained for the tier one nations from this UEFA initiative, seemingly, and playing in an empty stadium will surely rob this fixture of much allure. Stalemate can ensue.
Austria -1 to beat Northern Ireland @ 29/20
Michael O’Neill and Northern Ireland have a very tough-looking double header looming as they travel to Austria and then Bosnia-Herzegovina in the space of four days.
The Northern Ireland boss admits the fixtures have been ‘unkind’ to his side while he also suggests that an opening defeat to the Bosnians leaves his side already with a purpose to use the Nations League as a stepping stone to the Euro 2020 qualifiers that will begin in the spring.
Both Austria and Northern Ireland lost their openers to Bosnia last month, 1-0 away and 2-1 at home respectively. O’Neill’s men bounced back with a 3-0 friendly success over Israel in Belfast, while Austria had previously defeated Sweden 2-0 on home soil early last month.
The Austrians have a poor record against Northern Ireland, winning only two of nine previous meetings, but they can make home advantage count in Vienna on Friday. Northern Ireland haven’t scored in their last four away matches and this is another tough assignment with some key players missing and O’Neill willing to blood new talent.
Denmark to score over 1.5 goals @ 17/10
Not 12 months on from a humbling 5-1 loss in their World Cup playoff second leg in Dublin, the Republic of Ireland must host Denmark in the Aviva Stadium again on Saturday night.
It hasn’t been an enjoyable time for Martin O’Neill and his men since that chastening defeat last November, when Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen orchestrated their downfall with a hat-trick.
The home side will at least be boosted by the news that Eriksen isn’t available this time around but Ireland must attempt to bounce back from a heavy 4-1 loss to Wales in Cardiff last month.
O’Neill’s troops have back-to-back home games against the Danes and Wales as they attempt to get back into the running in Group B4. Only a six-point return looks enough and that is hard to envisage.
Skipper Seamus Coleman along with influential Jonathan Walters and Robbie Brady will be missing here and O’Neill lacks the quality to replace them.
Outside of the tenacity and spirit provided by the ever-willing James McClean, the experienced coach is missing the ingredients needed to succeed regularly. Like Northern Ireland, the Republic will already be looking towards the spring for their chance to fashion a Euro 2020 spot, it seems.
Even without Eriksen to pull the strings, the Danes may have enough craft to outfox Ireland on their own patch for the second time in a year. It likely won’t get as humbling as that 5-1 defeat did, but the visitors are capable of breaching Ireland on more than one occasion.
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