The 2018 World Cup is less than three months away, and the number of opportunities nations will have to congregate together before the main event in Russia are dwindling. All of that makes what is normally a pretty docile and inconsequential March FIFA international fixture window one of greater importance.
The slate of matches on Friday (March 23) and next Tuesday (March 27) offers plenty of entertaining options around the globe, with some sure to be more indicative and useful than others. With nothing to lose and only experience to gain, some nations have gone all-in on their scheduling, lining up the toughest tests possible, while others have scheduled what they believe to be like-for-like tune-ups for the teams they'll face in group play come June. Here's the best of the bunch:
Germany vs. Spain, 3/23 | Germany vs. Brazil, 3/27
What about the pair of challenges Jogi Low has in store for his side?
Germany's first match of the window pits the last two World Cup champions against one another. If both win their groups and continue to have success in the knockout stage, they'd meet again in the World Cup semifinals.
Germany and Brazil, the top two teams in the latest FIFA rankings, then meet for the first time since Germany's famous 7-1 thrashing in the 2014 World Cup semifinals on Brazilian soil. It's a psychological gamble for Brazil to take on the Germans at this point, though if they're going to cross paths in Russia, they might as well get the hard part out of the way ahead of time. On the field, Brazil will be missing Neymar, much like it was during the horrifying loss four years ago, but the Seleção are in a much better, more balanced place under Tite than they were that fateful day in Belo Horizonte.
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Spain vs. Argentina, 3/27
Four days after Argentina faces Italy at the Etihad in Manchester, Lionel Messi's home country takes on his adopted one in a meeting of World Cup favorites. Messi surely knows the Barcelona- and Real Madrid-heavy opposition, while his opponents have had plenty of experience being both on the same and opposite side of La Pulga in league play. For Argentina, which was wholly unconvincing in World Cup qualifying, there aren't many more opportunities to prove a point and come together under manager Jorge Sampaoli, so this is one it'll have to take seriously. If both nations win their respective groups and last-16 games, this will be a quarterfinal matchup in Russia.
Portugal vs. Egypt, 3/23
Two of the top individual players on the planet go head-to-head when Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo lines up vs. Egypt's Mohamed Salah. That alone is worth the watch, though both of these sides figure to be wild cards in Russia, too. Portugal is the reigning European champion, though it doesn't seem like many think Ronaldo & Co. can replicate that feat on the World Cup stage, while Egypt has a manageable group and one of the world's most in-form talents at the wheel. It should be a fascinating matchup.
France vs. Colombia, 3/23
There's arguably no nation in the world that boasts the depth of talent like France, but that hasn't quite equaled domination under manager Didier Deschamps, who must narrow his bevy of stars into a cohesive group that works well together and avoids the self destruction that has been known to plague France before. A momentum- and confidence-building result against a side of Colombia's stature could do wonders heading into the final preparations, while anything less could perpetuate concern about Les Bleus and the worry that the whole will be considerably less than the sum of the parts.
Russia vs. Brazil, 3/23 | Russia vs. France, 3/27
Russia will be performing under quite the spotlight this summer, so the World Cup hosts might as well find out where they stand now. Home tests against the two competition favorites could provide a barometer, while Brazil and France each get the benefit of preparing for a match at World Cup venues. It's a feeling-out win-win across the board.
Mexico vs. Iceland, 3/23 | Mexico vs. Croatia, 3/27
El Tri takes to U.S. soil to test itself against a pair of Russia-bound, Group D sides. Juan Carlos Osorio won't have his full complement of players after a few backed out with minor injuries (Jonathan Dos Santos, Javier Aquino, Jurgen Damm), but then again, you'd expect him to rotate the squad in these two matches anyway. It's an opportunity for veterans to reaffirm their places in the starting XI, Hirving Lozano to continue his ascent and California-born midfielder Jonathan Gonzalez to prove he belongs on the plane ride to Russia.
Netherlands vs. England, 3/23 | England vs. Italy, 3/27
The Three Lions will take on the Two Disappointments, with the Oranje and Azzurri missing out on the trip to Russia. They'll still pose stiff challenges for an England team that still has its fair share of doubters–and one that will have to play without the injured Harry Kane. There are roster spots aplenty up for grabs under Gareth Southgate, who has plenty to prove himself.