France still in need of fine-tuning
France’s last match, the 3-0 victory over Ukraine, was their best performance in years and came immediately after one of their worst, the 2-0 defeat in the first leg in Ukraine. That pair of matches seems to have crystallised certain thoughts in the mind of Didier Deschamps, such as Eric Abidal’s international days are gone and Samir Nasri isn’t worth the hassle. Questions remain, however, and Deschamps will test some answers in the friendly against Holland.
The main doubts are in defence, where Laurent Koscielny and Mamadou Sakho thrived against Ukraine but the Liverpool man has barely featured for his club since then and Koscielny is suspended for the first match of the World Cup so Deschamps needs to study alternatives. He is lucky to have high-calibre, if inexperienced, options, with Raphaël Varane and Eliaquim Mangala in the squad for the friendly against Holland. Bacary Sagna and Mathieu Debuchy are competing for the right-back berth but there is less solidity on the left, where Patrice Evra has moved ahead of Gaël Clichy in the affections of Deschamps. But the manager knows neither solution is ideal, which is why he is likely to give a debut to Paris Saint-Germain’s Lucas Digne – if the 20-year-old impresses against Holland he could earn himself a spot at the World Cup and even edge close to a starting place.
France will have one of the best midfields in Brazil, brimming with dynamism, guile and vision thanks to players such Blaise Matuidi, Paul Pogba, Mathieu Valbuena, Yohan Cabaye and Clément Grenier. Franck Ribéry is a certain starter out wide but the other flank is up for grabs, with Antoine Greizmann getting a chance to stake his claim against Holland. The 22-year-old has scored as many goals in Spain this season as Karim Benzema despite playing for a much more modest club, Real Sociedad. While the recent resurgence of Karim Benzema suggests the pickle over who to deploy as central striker may finally have been resolved, Greizmann could still force his way into the starting XI for Brazil.PD
Dutch looking to dispel doubts over defence
It is not clear how good Holland are. They cantered through qualifying but their group was as weak as watered-down ale and their friendly performances have been mixed. Louis van Gaal has had to revamp the team that stunk at Euro 2012 and while Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder have survived the churn, Kevin Strootman has become a fixture in midfield and Robin van Persie has won his duel with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, the defence, in particular, has had to be rebuilt. After trying 19 different defenders since taking charge, Van Gaal seems increasingly convinced that his best centre-back is the 21-year-old Bruno Martins Indi, who plays left-back for Feyenoord, and his ideal full-backs are Daryl Janmaat and Daley Blind, who plays in midfield for Ajax. At 29, Aston Villa’s Ron Vlaar is much older than that trio but not much more experienced, all in front of Jasper Cillessen, the 24-year-old Ajax goalkeeper who seems to have established himself as his country’s new No1. Will the Oranje function like clockwork against Les Bleus or will Van Gaal be forced into a rethink? PD
Drogba and Lukaku – the once and future kings
This is a meeting between two teams heading in different directions, but which is nearer their goal? Belgium boast a bevy of young talent preparing for their first major tournament, while Ivory Coast is hoping to wring a last hurrah from a golden generation that never fulfilled its promise on the global stage (partially because of cruel draws). The difference between the countries could be encapsulated in the developmental stages of Romelu Lukaku and his idol, Didier Drogba, who suggests that the young Belgian has the potential to be even better than him. “He is as big as me but already more powerful and has qualities that I don’t have while, of course, I have some that he will only gain with time,” said Drogba as the pair prepare to go head to head. Lukaku’s most pressing concern is not how he fares in comparison with Drogba but rather Christian Benteke, with whom he could be competing for a starting spot unless Belgium’s manager, Marc Wilmots, continues playing with two up front. While the Ivorians’ best players are in the twilight of their careers, they do have some promising youth coming through, and this game could bring a debut for Jean-Mikael Séri, who celebrated his international call-up by scoring in another fine midfield performance for Pacos de Ferreira last weekend. PD
Drimic to solve Switzerland’s striking problems?
Nürnberg were not worth watching until last October, when Gertjan Verbeek arrived as manager and introduced a far more adventurous approach. One of the prime beneficiaries of that change, aside from Bundesliga supporters, was Josip Drimic, the striker who has since struck 11 goals, making him one of the sharpest shooters in the division. Now the 21-year-old could add a new dimension to Switzerland, who are likely to give him a debut against the country of his parents, Croatia. With Switzerland’s main forward, Haris Seferovic, enduring problems at Real Sociedad, Drimic’s emergence could not be better timed. This is his chance to grab a World Cup ticket. PD
It’s not all about the World Cup…
It’s not all about the World Cup. The draw for Euro 204 has given extra significance to the friendly between Poland and Scotland, who meet again in official competition. While Gordon Strachan will be looking for further evidence that he is forging a decent side, in which Darren Fletcher may be integrated, he may also be enthused by the sight of Polish disarray. The Poland manager, Adam Nawalka, may be able to call on one of the world’s best strikers, Robert Lewandowski, but, other than Jakub Blaszczykowski, there is no one who can be relied upon to provide a regular supply to the striker. Ludovic Obraniak has yet to justify his recall. The Poles were third seeds but, as Scotland may be about to find out, Nawalka’s team currently look no better than fourth best in a Euro 2014 group that also features Germany and Republic of Ireland. PD
Henderson in the frame
Jordan Henderson might run from his knees (copyright: Sir Alex Ferguson) but, increasingly, he is a footballer who plays with his brain switched on and his head up. His transformation from a callow youth into a buccaneering midfield force this season has been a joy to watch. When Henderson joined Liverpool in 2011, there were many people who wondered whether he was worth the £16m it took to sign him from Sunderland. Bar a few flashes of potential, a disappointingly timid first season at Anfield meant that he was in danger of joining Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam on the Damien Comolli scrapheap. When Brendan Rodgers replaced Kenny Dalglish at the end of the 2011-12 season, Henderson was almost allowed to join Fulham as part of Liverpool’s failed bid for Clint Dempsey. Henderson stayed to fight for his place instead and the 23-year-old, now a vital part of this vibrant Liverpool side, is producing the form that caused such excitement when he was a teenage prospect at Sunderland. His performances have surely elevated him above Tom Cleverley in Roy Hodgson’s midfield pecking order and although Henderson has not caught the eye in the handful of appearances he has made for England, his growing self-belief suggests that he would cope with the pressure of a World Cup. JS
Colombia without Falcao is not a lost cause
The worry for the dark horses is that they might lose some of their gallop with the absence of their main thoroughbred. While Radamel Falcao is said to be recovering promisingly after surgery on the ligament damage the Monaco striker suffered in his knee in January, there remains a strong chance that Colombia’s best player will not be fit in time for the World Cup, which is a scenario they are desperate to avoid. But all is not lost – as decisive as he is, this Colombia side is about more than Falcao and they have forwards who could fill the void if the worst comes to pass. Colombia’s coach, José Pékerman, still has River Plate’s Teófilo Gutiérrez, Arsenal and Chelsea have been sniffing around Porto’s Jackson Martínez, only Lewandowkski has scored more goals in the Bundesliga than Hertha Berlin’s Adrián Ramos this season and Luis Muriel is making a name for himself at Udinese. Fredy Montero, performing well for Sporting Lisbon, is another contender. Perhaps none of those players possess Falcao’s ability to make a game about him, but Colombia have no need to panic if he doesn’t make it. JS
Germany production line keeps on churning
Those Germans. No Julian Draxler? No Thomas Müller? No Marco Reus? No problem. Their squad still contains Mario Götze, Mesut Özil, Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Unlike other countries, the absence of three of their most exciting attackers is a wound that they can absorb and Joachim Löw has turned this into an opportunity to have a look at four new players in Germany’s friendly against Chile. In come the Freiburg defender Matthias Ginter, the Sampdoria defender Shkodran Mustafi, the Augsburg midfielder Andre Hahn, and the Hamburg forward, Pierre-Michel Lasogga. Ginter has the considerable honour of being on David Moyes’s shopping list and the 20-year-old centre-back is tipped for greatness, while Lasogga, 22, has scored 11 times for Hamburg in the league this season. The flow of talent shows no sign of slowing. JS
Costa play system to gain Spain chance
And then there’s Spain. No Juan Mata? No David Villa? No Fernando Torres? No problem, they’ll have to make do with – take a deep breath now – Cesc Fábregas, Andrés Iniesta, Thiago Alcântara, David Silva, Koke, Xavi, Jesús Navas, Sergio Busquets, Álvaro Negredo, Santi Cazorla and Pedro instead. The array of talent is so vast that, without batting an eyelid, Spain can leave out players who would be automatic starters for other sides. That said, perhaps it is not a great surprise that Torres and Villa have been excluded, with both no longer operating at the level that made them two of the most feared strikers in the world a few years ago. While Torres and Villa still have a lot to offer, injuries and age have slowed them down, reducing their sharpness in front of goal, and Spain won Euro 2012 without playing a recognised striker. That does not mean there is no place for a striker in their squad, though – after all, Torres scored the winner in the Euro 2008 final against Germany and Villa was crucial in that tournament and at the last World Cup. It is just that neither player is the force that they once were, which is why Spain have now turned to Diego Costa, Brazilian-born but eligible for selection after changing nationality. While the 25-year-old could start a fight in a black hole, he is a centre-forward who is powerful, quick and cool in front of goal, as he has demonstrated on numerous occasions for Atlético Madrid this season. Costa, who should get a chance against Italy, and Spain have been criticised for the way they have used the system, but their opportunism – some might say desperation – is likely to work to their advantage. JS
Croatia begin search to replace Mandzukic
Croatia’s victory over Iceland in the play-offs came at a heavy price. At the same time as they were celebrating booking their World Cup place, they were also digesting the news that they will be without their striker, Mario Mandzukic, for the opener against Brazil after his red card. Mandzukic, banned for one match, is a rare kind of forward, a penalty-box poacher who also gets through a prodigious amount of work off the ball, both in and out of possession. There are not many of his kind and Niko Kovac will find it hard to replace the Bayern Munich striker, a scorer in last season’s Champions League final and a regular in the best club side in the world. Ivica Olic, Eduardo, Leon Benko and Nikica Jelavic are not in the same class – but Kovac will need one of them to step up. The search begins against Switzerland. JS