The UEFA region’s final round of World Cup qualifying for 2016 gets underway this weekend. The continent’s top teams will look to consolidate their positions in their respective groups before qualifying resumes next March. Here is a look ahead to some of this weekend’s key matches.
France vs. Sweden
Euro 2016 finalists France will host Sweden in World Cup qualifying on Friday. Led by attacker Antoine Griezmann and midfielder Paul Pogba, Les Bleus boast one of the most talented squads in Europe and will be favorites at home against a Sweden side still struggling for identity in the post-Zlatan Ibrahimovic era.
Marcel Deschamps’ side has won two out of three of its last three qualifiers and sits atop Group A. Deschamps is dealing with some injuries in the defense department, with Patrice Evra called in for Layvin Kurzawa and Eliaquim Mangala in for Samuel Umtiti. With striker Karim Benzema still on the outs, France will look to the in-form Kevin Gameiro for goals with Griezmann and West Ham winger Dimitri Payet providing attacking support. Pogba will play the part of midfield orchestrator while Tottenham’s Hugo Llloris will likely start in goal.
Despite the loss of talisman Ibrahimovic, who announced his international retirement during the Euros, Sweden are also undefeated in qualifying and are tied with France on seven points atop Group A. With Ibrahimovic gone, coach Janne
Andersson has relied on a committee of different goal scorers with Marcus Berg, Ola Tiovonen and Oscar Hiljemark also chipping in with scoring duties.
Watch France vs. Sweden on Friday November 11 at 2:30 p.m. EST on ESPN2.
Liechtenstein vs. Italy
Italy was one of the surprise packages of this summer’s Euros and has continued with an unbeaten run in qualifying. Manager Giampiero Ventura has taken the helm from Antonio Conte and also has a spate of injuries to contend with. Mainly Claudio Marchisio who was sent home with a leg injury and was replaced by Atalanta midfielder Roberto Gagliardini and Genoa’s Armando Izzo.
In the defense, Ventura will be without Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli. Also notably absent, although not from injury, are Mario Balotelli and Sebastian Giovinco. Balotelli was rediscovered his scoring form since moving to Nice in Ligue 1 but has been omitted due to Ventura’s wariness regarding his temperament.
Toronto FC’s Giovinco has been the standout player in Major League Soccer for the past two seasons running. But Ventura, controversially says Giovinco was left out because MLS is “a league that doesn’t count for much.” Also absent as Graziano Pelle who ran afoul of Ventura after refusing to shake the manager’s hand following Italy’s 1-1 draw with Spain last month.
Instead Ventura is likely to rely on a strike partnership of Andrea Belotti and Ciro Immobile. Italy sit tied on points with Spain atop Group G while Liechtenstein sit bottom on no points.
Watch Liechtenstein vs. Italy on Saturday November 12 at 2:30 p.m. EST on Fox Sports 2.
Portugal vs. Latvia
After winning the Euros last summer it’s been a little up and down for Portugal. After losing their opening match in their qualifying campaign to Switzerland, Fernando Santos’ team came roaring back with 6-0 wins against Andorra and Faroe Islands. Portugal currently sits second in Group B behind Switzerland.
Cristiano Ronaldo has predictably been leading the scoring for Portugal with five goals in qualifying. The Real Madrid superstar is also likely to lead the attack against minnows Latvia who sit second from bottom of the group on three points.
Watch Portugal vs. Latvia on Sunday November 13 at 2:30 p.m. EST on Fox Sports 2.