Chelsea is six points clear at the top of the Premier League but wobbling. Manchester United has suddenly clicked into gear to move five points clear in the race for fourth. Barcelona won the Clásico to move four points clear in Spain. Juventus and Bayern Munich almost have their respective titles wrapped up. In France the top three are separated by just two points. The draw for the quarterfinal of the Champions League has just been made.
The final lap of the domestic season is just about to begin, and suddenly everything stops and the attention is wrested to Euro 2016 qualifiers and friendlies. International competition often feels like an interloper in the modern game but never more so than in this window when, after four months off, it suddenly returns and everybody has to remind themselves about a whole other set of narratives.
Here, then, are five key fixtures in the upcoming European championship qualifiers:
Netherlands vs. Turkey
Guus Hiddink’s Dutch side had a dismal start to qualifying, losing its opening two away games in Group A, against the Czech Republic and Turkey. The expansion of the competition–with the top two in each group going through automatically and third place offering a route into the playoffs–means the pressure isn’t as great as it might have been, but a slip-up against an underperforming Turkey might place even third in doubt.
With Robin van Persie injured, Hiddink has called up Wolfsburg’s free-scoring 25-year-old forward Bas Dost, while Eljero Elia has returned to the squad after impressing on loan at Southampton. Unless Iceland falters unexpectedly in Kazakhstan, Turkey probably needs at least a point to keep alive any realistic chance of qualification.
Israel vs. Wales
Everything, of course, might look very different had Israel’s home fixture against Belgium last September not had to be postponed for security fears–it will be played next Tuesday instead–but as things stand, the visit of Chris Coleman’s side to Haifa is a clash of first against second in the group.
Israel has won all three of its games so far, results that include an awkward trip to Cyprus and a 3-0 home demolition of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and looks well-set for at least a playoff place. Gareth Bale-led Wales, meanwhile, having scrambled together wins against Andorra and Cyprus and missing an opportunity by not beating a poor Bosnia at home, was suddenly given fresh hope by a battling draw away to Belgium.
It must be assumed that Belgium will eventually click, but the scrap for second and third in Group B is very open.
Spain vs. Ukraine
There may be a general consensus that the FIFA world ranking doesn’t really matter–except when it comes to seeding for tournaments–but it still must have come as something as a shock to Spain to have slipped out of the top 10 last month.
It still seems inconceivable that Spain will not merely be in France next summer but will be among the favorites, but it is still searching for a sense of coherence in a post-Xavi world. A defeat in Slovakia in October means Spain sits second in Group C, ahead of Ukraine only on goal-difference. With Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk and Dynamo Kyiv reaching the quarterfinals of the Europa League, there is a sense of a coming Ukrainian surge.
Dynamo’s Andriy Yarmolenko, who scored a hat trick away to Luxembourg last time out as well as the brilliant opener for Dynamo against Everton in their Europa League last-16 second leg, is in particularly rich form.
Republic of Ireland vs. Poland
With even third place in each group offering a playoff, some of the attempts to talk up the tension ahead of qualifiers can feel a little forced, but in Group D, with four sides angling for those three places (or, perhaps more accurately, three sides angling for the two places behind Germany), there is genuine excitement.
Poland, having beaten Germany in October (three days before drawing at home to Scotland) tops the group and could take a giant stride toward one of those automatic qualifying slots with a win against Ireland in Dublin.
It will have to do so, though, without Lukasz Piszczek, Artur Jedrzejczyk, and Kamil Grosicki, all injured, and Jakub Blaszczykowski, who is out of favor after a falling-out with Robert Lewandowski.
Ireland, meanwhile, having lost away to Scotland in November, needs at least a draw to stay in touch.
Northern Ireland vs. Finland
Whatever else the expansion to a 24-team European Championship has done, it’s opened up the competition to countries who would otherwise have had little or no chance. Northern Ireland, which hasn’t qualified for a major tournament since the 1986 World Cup, is perhaps the best example. It is suddenly second in Group F and dreaming of a place in France after a remarkable late comeback away to Hungary and victories over Greece (away) and the Faroe Islands (at home).
A defeat away to group-leading Romania in November set it back some, but a home win over fourth-place Finland would give it a cushion of eight points over fourth (unless the Faroes do something improbable in Romania)–with the expectation that Greece must improve and start taking points from rivals at some point.