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.
Soldiers play some soccer amid ceasefire in Ukraine conflict
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ordered troops to abide by the truce from midnight, in line with a deal reached in Minsk earlier this week with the leaders of Russia, Germany and France.
According to multiple reports, the ceasefire was by and large observed across the front. An exception: reports of continued fighting in Debaltseve, near where these soldiers are pictured.
Debaltseve, a town of just over 25,000 a short distance from these pictures, has become an epicenter of clashes between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels.
Ukrainian soldiers play football on the road leading to the embattled town of Debaltseve on February 15, 2015 outside Artemivsk, Ukraine.
The ceasefire between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian forces went into effect at midnight on Sunday, the day these photos were taken.
Ukrainian soldiers play football on the road leading to the embattled town of Debaltseve on February 15, 2015 outside Artemivsk, Ukraine
Ukrainian soldiers play football on the road leading to the embattled town of Debaltseve on February 15, 2015 outside Artemivsk, Ukraine.
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.
Best soccer tifos from around the world
Galatasaray fans display a sensational "Rocky" tifo ahead of their clash against rival Fenerbahce. It didn't inspire a victory, though. The Turkish rivals played to a 0-0 draw.
Borussia Dortmund fans channel their 1963 cup triumph over Benfica ahead of the teams' second leg in the Champions League round of 16 at Signal Iduna Park.
Hapoel Be'er Sheva fans turn to Moses for tifo inspiration, with his splitting the Red Sea illustrating how "impossible is nothing" in their Europa League series against Besiktas.
Fans of Tunisia's Club Africain display this pointed tifo at a friendly against PSG, whose Qatari owners have pumped millions and millions into the club.
U.S. fans in Columbus, Ohio, make a "One Nation, One Team" statement ahead of the USMNT's World Cup qualifying match against Mexico on November 11, 2016.
Germany fans display their heart for the team colors ahead of a World Cup qualifier against Czech Republic in October 2016.
Italy fans spell out their support for the Azzurri ahead of a massive World Cup qualifier vs. Spain in October 2018.
Iceland fans keep up their world-famous passion for the national team during a World Cup qualifier against Turkey in October 2016.
Fans in the United Arab Emirates set their sights on reaching the 2018 World Cup in Russia during a qualifying match vs. Australia in September 2016.
Colombia fans send a massive jersey around the stadium during a World Cup qualifier vs. Venezuela in September 2016.
Seattle Sounders fans turn to Game Of Thrones for inspiration in a game against the Cascadia rival Vancouver Whitecaps in September 2016.
Djurgardens fans go all out in Sweden for a match against AIK in September 2016.
Zulte Waregem fans prepare Kortrijk for the absolute worst in this Belgian top-flight match in September 2016.
Seattle Sounders fans turn their pop culture reference to Poltergeist in March 2016 ahead of the season home opener against Sporting Kansas City.
The Timbers Army doubles down on their Eastbound and Down theme, adding another wrinkle during the club's MLS Western Conference final first leg vs. FC Dallas on November 22, 2015 at Providence Park.
Fans make a French flag tifo at Wembley Stadium during the singing of Le Marseillaise ahead of England's friendly vs. France, which took place days after the terrorist attacks in Paris.
The Timbers Army referenced Eastbound & Down's Kenny Powers with their "Cup Bound and Down" tifo for the Portland Timbers' MLS playoff elimination game against Sporting Kansas City on October 29, 2015.
Brondby IF fans display a gladiator holding up a lion's head during the team's Danish Alka Superliga match against FC Copenhagen, whose logo is a lion's head, on September 27, 2015.
New England Revolution fans equate Jermaine Jones to Indiana Jones on their quest to capture the 2015 MLS Cup on September 26, 2015.
New England Revolution fans display a Lion King theme in honor of Orlando City FC's first visit to Gillette Stadium on September 5, 2015.
Red Bulls fans take a shot at NYCFC's two summer arrivals, 37-year-old Frank Lampard and 36-year-old Andrea Pirlo, ahead of their third MLS meeting of 2015.
Germany fans in Cologne salute their World Cup champions ahead of a friendly against the United States in June, 2015.
Real Madrid fans went all out prior to the second leg of the 2014-15 Champions League semifinal vs. Juventus.
Lazio fans display a stunning eagle tifo ahead of the Rome derby against AS Roma in their penultimate Serie A match of the 2014-15 season.
Barcelona fans bid farewell to veteran midfielder Xavi with this banner at his last league game at Camp Nou before he departs for Qatari club Al Sadd.
Fans at Anfield pay tribute to Steven Gerrard in his final home match as a Liverpool player in May 2015.
Juventus fans state their case to beat Real Madrid in the 2014-15 Champions League semifinals and reach the final in Berlin.
Fans at Benfica's Estadio da Luz remind rival Porto who the Primeira Liga reigning champion is during an April 2015 match in Portugal.
New York Red Bulls fans send a pointed message to their NYCFC counterparts prior to the teams' first MLS meeting in May, 2015.
Inter Milan's Curva Nord announces its presence ahead of the April 2015 Derby della Madonnina–the annual clashes between city rivals Inter and AC Milan.
Bayern Munich fans implore their club to (translated) "Never give up" in the Champions League quarterfinal second leg vs. Porto. Bayern then turned a 3-1 first-leg deficit into a 7-4 aggregate win and a place in the semifinals.
Dortmund fans commemorate their 1997 Champions League trophy in the club's clash vs. Juventus–the opponent on the wrong side of that title bout.
Portland Timbers fans speak out against homophobia with this tifo in a 2013 match against Chivas USA
Atletico's supporters display a banner reading "Atleti crushes" before the Spanish league match between Atletico Madrid and FC Barcelona at the Vicente Calderon stadium in Madrid,
Borussia Dortmund fans put on a remarkable display ahead of a UEFA Champions League quarterfinal second leg match.
Brondby IF fans unveil a tifo ahead of a match in Denmark against Randers FC.
FC Barcelona fans display a huge banner in memory of former head coach Tito Vilanova.
Galatasaray fans support their team during the UEFA Champions League Group D match between Borussia Dortmund and Galatasaray at the Turk Telekom Arena in Istanbul.
The American Outlaws unveil a huge tifo ahead of a 2014 World Cup send-off match between the USA and Turkey at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J.
Marseille's supporters use paper sheets to create an "OM" (Olympique de Marseille) tifo at the beginning of the French L1 football match between Marseille and Genoble.
Seattle Sounders fans display their tifo that shows coach Sigi Schmid playing cards and holding a Royal Flush before a match against the Portland Timbers.
Panathinaikos Athens fans display a banner during the UEFA Europa League match against Dynamo Moscow.
Fans of the Saudi Al-Hilal team celebrate after the scoring of a goal against Uzbekistan's Bunyodkor.
Seattle Sounders fans unveil a tifo inspired from the “Build a Bonfire” chant, featuring Sounder players holding torches on horseback ahead of a game against the Portland Timbers.
Fans of Hertha BSC before the Bundesliga match between Hertha BSC and Werder Bremen in Berlin.
Sporting Kansas City fans channel their inner Mario ahead of the 2013 MLS Cup final vs. Real Salt Lake.
Brondby IF fans.
Thousands of Barcelona fans hold up cards to spell out "Barca! Orgull," which translates to "Barcelona pride" ahead of a Champions League clash with Bayern Munich at Camp Nou.
Fans raise a tifo celebrating “Community, Club and Country” ahead of a CONCACAF Gold Cup match between the USA and Belize in Portland, Oregon.
Vitesse fans unfurl a massive Eagle banner at the Dutch Eredivisie match against Ajax at the GelreDome.
Valencia fans drape a banner featuring a king for a Copa del Rey ("The King's Cup) match against Atletico Madrid.
Juventus fans make a statement in Turin in a match vs. Inter Milan.
Dortmund fans put on another strong display at a Bundesliga match against Mainz 05.
German fans boast the newest star earned by the national team, symbolizing its 2014 World Cup triumph, at a Euro 2016 qualifying match in Dortmund.
Real Madrid fans make a point to display the club's 10 European championships ahead of the October 2014 clash against rival Barcelona at the Bernabeu.
San Jose Earthquakes fans unleash a massive tifo to mark the opening of Avaya Stadium, MLS's newest soccer-specific venue, in March 2015.
Barcelona fans show all who the real 12th man is ahead of the March 2015 Clásico vs. Real Madrid.
Ahead of a clash with Mexican foe Monterrey, Tigres players are treated by this message by its fervent supporters.
Standard Liege fans have a pointed message for Steven Defour, who departed the club for Belgian rival Anderlecht.
Orlando City fans mark their club's inaugural MLS game vs. fellow expansion side New York City FC with a statement that the Lions' "reign begins now."
Real Madrid fans salute Ballon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo after he captured the most prestigious individual prize in world soccer again.
Vitesse fans pay homage to Operation Market Garden ahead of an Eredivisie match against SC Heerenveen.
Sevilla's fans deploy a giant banner in the stands before the UEFA Europa league final match between Benfica and Sevilla.
Fans in Liverpool’s Kop End at Anfield commemorate those lost in the Hillsborough disaster.
Lyon fans during a game against Saint Etienne.