It is officially international break time, and contrary to the old and tired criticism that international breaks are boring, March's FIFA window offers up some major storylines and heavyweight matchups. With Euro 2020 qualifying beginning this week and key late-round qualifying games in both CAF and CONCACAF, Nick Ames spans the globe to tell us what to watch for in this jam-packed international break ...
Can Holland show Germany the dial has shifted back?
Last year, in the Nations League, the Netherlands compounded Germany's current plight with a 3-0 win at home and a comeback 2-2 draw away -- the latter coming in both sides' most recent outing. It is some coincidence that they meet again in Group C of the Euro 2020 qualifiers and the Dutch have a great chance to further add to their old rivals' pain. Suddenly, the Netherlands look on the brink of having a "moment" again, as they boast arguably the world's best centre-back in Virgil van Dijk and the core of perhaps its most vibrant club side, too. Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong and Donny van de Beek were all pivotal to Ajax's sensational Champions League win over Real Madrid, and after years in the doldrums, the Netherland are producing a generation of potentially world-class players once again. Meanwhile, Germany -- whose coach, Joachim Low, called time on the International careers of veterans Thomas Muller, Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng in controversial fashion earlier this month -- find themselves in the midst of a reset that their opponents might find familiar. If Holland triumph in Amsterdam on Sunday (they face Belarus on Thursday first, while Germany play Serbia in a friendly on Wednesday), the balance of power might just have conclusively shifted.
Will England continue their momentum?
England have a curious tendency of sailing through qualifying competitions while winning few friends -- not least in their own country -- along the way. It tends to be a dull grind, but they enter the Euro 2020 qualifiers on a high after their 2018 World Cup showing and run in reaching the Nations League finals. Gareth Southgate will be hoping to rekindle the heart -- mixed at times with genuine style -- that saw them overhaul both Spain and Croatia last year. It is not easy when your most important players are so preoccupied with domestic and European concerns at this time of year, and that is something Czech Republic and Montenegro, their opponents in the next week, will have their eyes on exploiting. England have landed with a curious group, short of a whipping boy but also of clear competition for first place, in which they are obvious favourites. If Southgate needs to freshen anything up, then a debut for Declan Rice and, perhaps, a first competitive start for Jadon Sancho might keep the sparkle going.
Can Mick McCarthy bring the joy back to Ireland?
In a sense, it looked just like old times on Monday morning when Mick McCarthy held his first Republic of Ireland training session in 17 years. But reality has hit in the days since he took them to the last 16 of the 2002 World Cup. They have qualified for only two major tournaments since then, and a country that once relished punching above its weight, aided by a pool of genuine talents from the Premier League and beyond, has seen expectations plummet. It does not help when a talent like Declan Rice switches allegiances to England. Ireland, who have won just one of their past 11 games -- but have winnable ties against Gibraltar and Georgia this month -- badly need some good news to hang on to. One of their key men, the in-form Wolves wing-back Matt Doherty, believes the atmosphere will be "more relaxed" and "not as tense" under McCarthy, compared with the reign of Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane. McCarthy is a practised man-manager, and perhaps if he can put smiles back on faces again, qualification from Group D -- where one of Switzerland and Denmark will need to be dislodged -- can be secured.
Is Jaime Mata the spearhead Spain need?
Luis Enrique's selection for the qualifiers against Norway and Malta was hardly short of talking points. The Spain manager excluded the likes of Isco, Saul, Koke and Diego Costa in favour of bringing in eight new faces. It feels like something of an overhaul, and perhaps the most notable arrival is Jaime Mata, a player whose journey to the top has differed markedly to that of his Manchester United namesake. Mata has been a revelation for Getafe this season, scoring 13 times in La Liga and being involved in more goals than any other Spanish player in the top five leagues. At 30, he must have believed his chance would never come and his play and call-up is some story for a man who, nine years ago, was playing in his country's fourth tier. During his time at that level with Galactico Pegaso, he and his teammates once dropped their shorts before a game to protest against nonpayment, also posing nude in the dressing room with only the club's bank account number preserving their modesty. Now he has no such worries, and with Alvaro Morata not having scored for Spain since November 2017 and Rodrigo experiencing a hit-and-miss campaign, he could be given an unlikely chance to solve his country's striking concerns.
With Alvaro Morata and Diego Costa misfiring, Luis Enrique has turned to 30-year-old journeyman Jaime Mata to solve Spain's striker woes. photo by Leonardo Prieto/Action Plus via Getty Images
Can Berahino and Burundi shock Aubameyang and Gabon?
Do the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers have one last shock up their sleeve? Mauritania and Madagascar already have provided big storylines, but the best may yet be to come. If Burundi draw at home to Gabon on Saturday, then the troubled East African country will reach the finals for the first time and it would mean a summer off international duty for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The Arsenal striker's country needs him to pull something out of the fire amid a prevailing sense of chaos around the squad. At the weekend, Gilchrist Nguema, one of Gabon's central defenders, was belatedly withdrawn from the travelling party after the local FA realised he no longer has a club; the latest example of why Aubameyang has, in the past, expressed exasperation with the national team setup. Burundi, on the other hand, have a spring in their step, and Saido Berahino, who has had a couple of unsatisfactory seasons at Stoke, could complete one of the year's most remarkable stories if he fires the country of his birth to this summer's tournament in Egypt.
Is the CONCACAF Nations League breathing life into the region?
The CONCACAF Nations League has breathed life into a region whose disparate island teams have often struggled to keep up with the big boys. It doubles as a qualifying tournament for this summer's Gold Cup, where the USA and Mexico are among those who lie in wait, and ahead of the deciding round of games there are some intriguing storylines. Tiny Montserrat, who were the lowest-ranked team in the world in 2002, could go through with a win in the Cayman Islands on Friday, and Bermuda are well placed for a first appearance of their own. The Caribbean is an often-ignored region in football's international landscape but now has some genuine mobility, aided by the Gold Cup's expansion to 16 teams. Games in the Nations League are live-streamed and have genuine edge. Those who have taken part report a genuine increase in intensity and quality, which might just help ensure the region's flagship tournament does not disappear behind competing interests when the summer comes around.