World Cup Qualifiers Preview: Part Two

Following on from part one of the preview of the international break from a Liverpool perspective, here’s how the Reds involved with the home nations, plus two of Europe’s heavyweights, will be occupied over the forthcoming days.

Emre Can – Germany

The reigning world champions invariably stroll through qualification for major tournaments as a matter of routine and so it is proving again, with Germany victorious in all six of their qualifiers thus far, five points clear of Northern Ireland in second and nine ahead of third-placed Czech Republic. Should Joachim Low’s side maintain their 100% record in their forthcoming games away to the Czechs and at home to Norway, and Northern Ireland then fail to beat the Czechs (a win in San Marino is a given), they will secure their place at the finals next year in Russia. Although Friday’s trip to Prague could be tricky, you would fancy the Germans to get the three points and follow that up with success over Norway in Stuttgart on Monday. The possibility of a draw between Northern Ireland and Czech Republic in Belfast is not a remote one, so the World Cup holders could be in a position to book their itinerary for June once Tuesday morning rolls around.

They also won the Confederations Cup over the summer and one of the key men in that triumph was Liverpool’s Emre Can. The 23-year-old midfielder has maintained his good form into the start of the season, scoring twice in the 4-2 Champions League play-off win over Hoffenheim and impressing for the Reds as they won two of their first three Premier League games. He will almost certainly play a part for Germany over the forthcoming days.

Divock Origi and Simon Mignolet – Belgium

As expected, Belgium sit in a commanding position at the top of UEFA Group H, with 16 points from a possible 18 hoovered up so far. That will surely be 19 from 21 by the end of Thursday night as they host Gibraltar in what is likely to be a turkey shoot. The same can’t be said for Sunday’s task, though, a trip to second-placed Greece promising to be their toughest fixture of the lot. The Greeks should beat Estonia on Thursday to maintain the four-point gap between them and Belgium, and if Roberto Martinez’s side were to then win in Piraeus, their place at the World Cup finals would be guaranteed. A draw would leave them almost certain of winning the group, but a Greek victory would turn the battle for group supremacy into a highly compelling two-horse race.

Liverpool pair Simon Mignolet and Divock Origi have linked up with the Belgian squad for this weekend’s qualifiers, but it could well happen that neither gets a run in either match. Mignolet, mysteriously left out of Liverpool’s squad for the 4-0 romp over Arsenal, is very much backup to national team number one Thibaut Courtois, while Origi hasn’t featured for the Reds at all this season and is well behind the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Dries Mertens and Yannick Ferreira Carrasco for a place in the Belgian attack. His best hope is that Martinez views the game with Gibraltar as such a formality that he gives the 22-year-old an opportunity to impress.

Danny Ward and Ben Woodburn – Wales

After their heroic showing at Euro 2016, Wales are still just about in the hunt to reach their first World Cup in 60 years, but they would need a near-perfect finish to their qualifiers along with favours from elsewhere. They are third in Group D, four points behind joint leaders Serbia and Republic of Ireland. Chris Coleman’s side host Austria on Saturday and then travel to Moldova on Tuesday, with the expectation very much to win both games. Should they manage that and Serbia and Ireland draw on Tuesday, the Welsh will be right back in contention to qualify. Indeed, an Irish slip-up in Georgia on Saturday could even see Wales catch up to them, assuming they get the three points against an Austria team which surprisingly drew in Dublin in June.

As with the Belgian duo mentioned above, the Liverpool goalkeeper and striker involved in the Wales squad aren’t too likely to feature for the national team this weekend. Danny Ward, who was on the bench for the Reds’ win over Arsenal, will most likely play backup to Wayne Hennessey, while 17-year-old Ben Woodburn is still awaiting his first senior cap and isn’t likely to get it this month given the importance of the next couple of games.

Andrew Robertson – Scotland

While some Scotland fans might have seen the 2-2 draw with England in June as an unexpected point gained, the concession of a stoppage time equaliser made it a case of two dropped, especially when the victory would have taken them to within two points of Slovakia in the play-off spot. As it is, they are four off second place and six behind England, with a trip to Lithuania and a home match against Malta to come. A win in Vilnius is essential, but by no means guaranteed considering the Lithuanians drew at Hampden Park last October. Their cause is helped by the two teams above them, Slovakia and Slovenia, playing each other on Friday; a draw there and a Scottish win bring Gordon Strachan’s men back into play-off contention, and a home win over Malta shouldn’t be too hard to achieve. Indeed, with Slovakia away to England on Monday, the Scots might even climb to second going into the concluding fixtures in a month’s time. Plenty to play for as it stands, but should the Scots drop points in either game, it’s difficult to see them retaining any hope of qualifying for a first major tournament in two decades.

Liverpool left-back Andrew Robertson has featured regularly for Scotland in their up-and-down qualifying campaign so far, although he has found club appearances harder to come by at Anfield since joining the Reds in the summer. One hopes that Strachan will show more faith in him than Jurgen Klopp seems to have done thus far, as the 23-year-old could do with game time and a chance to show that he is a better option than Alberto Moreno in his position.

Jordan Henderson and Daniel Sturridge – England

In the same group as Robertson’s Scotland, leaders England could potentially qualify for the World Cup finals this week if they win their games in Malta and at home to Slovakia, along with other results going their way. Gareth Southgate’s team were a tad fortunate to rescue a draw in Scotland last time out, the equaliser keeping them two points clear of Slovakia in second. If the Three Lions win both of their games, Slovakia fail to beat Slovenia on Friday and Scotland drop points in either of their next two matches, England will guarantee a sixth successive World Cup qualification. Even if the job isn’t fully done by this time next week, two very winnable games should leave Southgate’s men at least on the brink of securing first place in Group D.

Injuries to Adam Lallana and Nathaniel Clyne mean that this week’s England contingent features just two Liverpool players, Jordan Henderson and Daniel Sturridge. Henderson, who was superb in the win over Arsenal last Sunday, is likely to start for the Three Lions and will almost certainly feature in both games. Sturridge, scorer of Liverpool’s fourth against the Gunners, will probably be left hoping for an appearance off the bench with Harry Kane, Danny Welbeck and Marcus Rashford all seemingly ahead of him in the attacking pecking order.

Trent Alexander-Arnold, Dominic Solanke and Joe Gomez – England under 21s

It was a glorious summer for underage football in England, with the under 20s winning the World Cup, the under 19s lifting the European crown and triumph in Toulon. The under 21s couldn’t quite go the distance at the European finals in Poland in June, but penalty shoot-out defeat to eventual winners Germany in the semi-finals was no disgrace. Aidy Boothroyd’s youngsters begin their bid to reach the 2019 finals in Italy and San Marino on Friday with a trip to Netherlands in Group 4, followed by a home game against Latvia next Tuesday. Also in the group are Ukraine, Scotland and Andorra. The Three Lions will be expected to win the group, especially if they can get a result away to the Dutch this weekend.

Three Liverpool players are in Boothroyd’s squad, two of whom could be competing for the right-back position. The early season performances of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez would justify their inclusion in the team, with the possibility of the ex-Charlton youngster moving into central defence. Dominic Solanke, voted Player of the Tournament at that Under 20 World Cup in South Korea, should be in contention to start, although Tammy Abraham or Demarai Gray could be preferred.