The final international fixture window of 2014 features the long-awaited international return of some household names, crucial qualifiers on multiple continents and handfuls of intriguing friendlies.
Here are 10 things to watch over the next week:
Netherlands vs. Mexico, friendly in Amsterdam
It’s a repeat of the round-of-16 meeting between the sides at the World Cup in Brazil, in which the Dutch came from behind to win thanks to a highly debatable penalty after Arjen Robben tumbled over Rafa Marquez. Mexico’s desire for revenge, though, has been relegated to the level of subplot.
For Mexico, the Real Socieded forward Carlos Vela returns after a three-year self-imposed absence from the national team, after talks with the manager Miguel Herrera. He was initially suspended for six months in September 2010 after throwing a party in Monterrey, and his return, his relationship with the then-coach Jose Manuel de la Torre and the Mexican authorities soon became unworkable.
Herrera is the third coach Mexico has had since De la Torre, though, and after some impressive displays at the World Cup, there is perhaps a sense of Mexico building something of substance.
For the Dutch, the game is vital as a build-up to Saturday’s Euro 2016 qualifier against Latvia. For all the talk of Euro qualification being rendered a procession by the expansion of the tournament, the Netherlands suddenly is in trouble, with defeats to the Czech Republic and Iceland having left it six points off automatic qualification. It’s still in a playoff slot, and there are seven games remaining, but so negative is the mood that Guus Hiddink has vowed to quit as coach if the Dutch lose. He has Luuk De Jong back after a three-year international exile.
Croatia vs. Argentina, friendly in London
Also back after a three-year absence from international football is another influential Carlos – Tevez – who likely to start for Argentina against Croatia at Upton Park on Wednesday.
A string of disappointing performances at the Copa America in 2011 suggested he and Lionel Messi struggle to play in the same side, and Alejandro Sabella, who became national coach after that tournament, never selected Tevez. He’s been in sensational form recently for Juventus, though, and current Albiceleste manager Gerardo Martino has restored him to the squad.
Croatia coach Niko Kovac has already indicated that he will rest his biggest stars – Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic – to keep them fresh for the Euro qualifier against Italy that will follow.
Scotland vs. Ireland, Euro 2016 qualifier in Glasgow
Scotland and Ireland have never both qualified for the same international tournament, but there’s a real prospect it could happen this time, and their meeting at Celtic Park is the most eagerly anticipated qualifier in Britain since Scotland was defeated by Italy in November 2007.
With Germany, despite recent stutters, surely going to top the group, it's realistically one of Ireland, Scotland and Poland for the other automatic slot and one for the playoff, with all three showing recent signs of resurgence. Among the many intriguing subplots is the meeting of the Sunderland duo of Steven Fletcher, likely to lead the line for Scotland, and John O’Shea, the heart of the Irish defense and the unlikely scorer of Ireland’s late equalizer against Germany last month.
“We go at each other week in, week out in training, so it should be good,” said Fletcher. “He doesn’t kick me, he can’t get near me! I told him to stay away from my ankles last week. That goal he scored against Germany was a bit of a sickener for us. I did congratulate him the next day. Through gritted teeth.”
England vs. Slovenia, Euro 2016 qualifier in London
England, so far, has made Euro qualifying look fairly simple, three largely uninspiring wins leaving it comfortably top of the group. In that regard, Saturday’s match at Wembley is rather more about Slovenia, which, after four straight defeats, has suddenly awoken with a home victory over Switzerland and a win in Lithuania.
Srecko Katanec, who led Slovenia to qualify for the Euros in 2000 and the World Cup in 2002 before falling out with Zlatko Zahovic, the team’s volatile star, took charge again in January last year, and history seems to be repeating.
He dropped Fiorentina midfielder Josip Ilicic, a gifted but inconsistent player who was probably the highest-profile outfielder in the squad, for those last two games, hoping, he says, to provoke a reaction. He achieved that, put perhaps not in the way he intended, with Ilicic deciding last week to stay away from international football so long as Katanec remains as Slovenia coach. Still, with Switzerland struggling, an unexpected qualification remains possible.
Romania vs. Northern Ireland, Euro 2016 qualifier in Bucharest
Northern Ireland hasn’t been at a major tournament since 1986, but after three straight wins at the start of qualifying – including away to Greece – there’s suddenly a real possibility that skid will end. In fact, with England, Scotland and Wales all starting well, the possibility exists that all four British nations could be at a tournament for only the second time (after the 1958 World Cup).
If Michael O’Neill’s side can come away from Bucharest with a point, it will probably have played its three toughest away games and would be well set for at worst a playoff slot. Northern Ireland could, though, be without its captain Steven Davis, after the Southampton midfielder strained a hamstring in Saturday’s win over Hull City.
Congo vs. Nigeria, 2015 AFCON qualifier in Ponte-Noire
The Cup of Nations will not go ahead in Morocco in January as scheduled, but whether it happens elsewhere at the same time, or is postponed for a year is still unclear. What is obvious, though, is that if Nigeria, the defending champion, is going to qualify, it needs at the very least to avoid defeat away to Congo on Saturday, and it probably needs to win.
Stephen Keshi is back as coach, although still working without a contract, despite having been sacked following the win over Sudan last month. The performance in that game raises some hope after an awful start to the campaign, but Nigeria trails Congo by three points and South Africa by four – with two to qualify automatically – with two games remaining.
Sierra Leone vs. Ivory Coast, 2015 AFCON qualifier in Abidjan
With the threat of Ebola making it impossible to play matches in Sierra Leone, Saturday’s qualifier has been switched to Abidjan, giving a distinct advantage to Ivory Coast. The Elephants need it. After four of the six qualifying games, they sit outside the two automatic qualification slots on goal difference.
Coach Herve Renard, has persuaded Didier Zokora out of retirement to take his place alongside Kolo Toure in an aging defense, and he also wants Didier Drogba back. That hasn’t happened yet, and so, with Seydou Doumbia injured and Wilfried Bony suspended, Salomon Kalou will lead the attack.
Austria vs. Russia, Euro 2016 qualifier in Vienna
It’s first against second in the group (one in which the presence of Sweden complicates automatic qualification), but it’s also a contest between an Austria team that is on the rise after four decades out of the spotlight and a Russia side that desperately needs to find a spark as it prepares to host the World Cup.
In the early 1930s, Austria had a good claim to be the best side in the world, and it remained competitive until the early 80s, after which its fall has been precipitous, but, led by Bayern Munich's David Alaba, the present crop has a good chance of qualifying for (as opposed to hosting) a tournament for the first time since the 1998 World Cup. Unfortunately for Austria, Alaba is out for the time being with a partial MCL tear.
Russia’s long-term plan of appointing Fabio Capello for 2018, already called into question by a poor World Cup in Brazil, could collapse completely should Russia miss out on Euro 2016.
Switzerland vs Lithuania, Euro 2016 qualifier in St. Gallen
Vladimir Petrovic hasn’t had an easy start to life as Switzerland manager. A defeat at home to England and away to Slovenia – followed by a victory away to San Marino – has placed what should have been a cakewalk to qualification in peril, and already the Swiss are in the position of not being able to afford any slip-ups if they’re to take one of the two automatic qualifying slots.
As Slovenia showed last month, if you can stop Lithuania’s wingers playing, it’s a fairly limited side, but the pressure is on. That said, if Switzerland wins and Slovenia loses to England, it’s tied for second in the group with its two main rivals and six games remaining.
Czech Republic vs Iceland, Euro 2016 qualifier in Prague
Iceland’s rise is one of the great stories of international football. After missing out on the World Cup in a playoff, the nation with a population of 323,000 has started Euro qualifying in extraordinary fashion, beating Turkey and the Netherlands at home and winning in Latvia.
Gylfi Sigurdsson, the creative heart of the team, has been in fine form since his return to Swansea City in the summer, scoring twice and setting up seven goals in the Premier league already this season, a run of form he continued with the winner on Sunday with the winner against Arsenal.
The Czechs also have three wins out of three, so this, although it wouldn’t have seemed likely at the start of the campaign, is probably Iceland’s biggest test so far. Whichever side wins is almost guaranteed at least a playoff slot.