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What needs to happen to make these friendlies not entirely pointless?

by Aidan Elder | November 13, 2012

SQUAD GRO-TATION: Roy Hodgson has used the chance to bring some new faces into the England set-up (pic:Inpho)

England

vs Sweden, Friends Arena, Solna –Wednesday 7.30pm ITV1
Roy Hodgson has already led England to the requisite penalty shoot-out exit in a major tournament, but it still just about counts as early days in Hodgson’s reign. Taking on Sweden in Solna doesn’t get the pulse racing like Helen Flanagan not fitting into a bikini, but it will give him a useful yardstick for assessing the credentials of some emerging talent.

Only three of England’s 21 man squad are old enough to be considered potential cast members on Thirtysomething whilst with 13 of the squad aged 25 or under, over half of them are young enough not to get that reference.

There’s no doubting the wisdom of introducing Steven Caulker, Carl Jenkinson, Raheem Sterling and Wilfried Zaha to international football. Based on what we’ve seen so far, they hopefully have long and successful England careers ahead of them. Although it is England, so they may have to settle for just ‘long’ careers.

If the any of young guns take to the international stage with aplomb and become a genuine option for competitive games, then this game won’t be a total waste of time.

England have fared well on FIFA’s made-up totally realistic and scientific world rankings lately, but the last batch saw them slip to sixth. A win in Sweden could bump them back up to fourth. But it’s hard to know for sure until FIFA blindfold the guy that does it, hand him his pin and spin him around 10 times.

A win at odds of 17/10 would be a nice way to finish the international year for England, but some good performances from the new faces is the main target.

CENTRE OF ATTENTION – McCarthy gets a chance to show the manager he can be the fulcrum of Ireland’s midfield (pic: Inpho)

Ireland

vs Greece, Aviva Stadium, Dublin – Wednesday 7.45pm, Sky Sports 3
Giovanni Trapattoni finally gets a chance to see all his heroes up close and personal on Wednesday night after years of watching them on DVD.

A “new look” starting 11 should include inventive, regular Premier League starters Shane Long, Wes Hoolahan Seamus Coleman, James McCarthy and James McClean instead of the raggle-taggle bunch that best fits Trap’s ‘no lose’ mentality.

While there’s definitely a feeling that the Italian’s hand has been forced by the higher-ups in the FAI with one eye on the gate receipts – Greece reached the last eight of Euro 2012 before their German paymasters sent them packing and will provide a real test if they can be arsed.

This experiment could easily go pear-shaped for the home side – but at least there’s nothing more than 90 minutes of finding something better to do at stake.

Europe’s most bankrupt country are 15/8 to win away to the continent’s most tactically bankrupt outfit at 6/4 – with a flashing red light above honours ending even at 11/5.

A perfunctory draw looks the best call. Hopefully, but not necessarily, with a couple of goals thrown in.

TIME TO COLLAR A WIN: Northern Ireland have played well under O’Neill, but need to start picking up points (pic: Inpho)

Northern Ireland (World Cup Qualifier)

v Azerbaijan, Windsor Park, BelfastWednesday 7.45pm, Sky Sports 2
Unlike the other three this match is an actual World Cup qualifier which therefore elevates the importance of Northern Ireland’s game against Azerbaijan beyond the level of completely pointless. To more than likely pointless. From a qualification point of view.

Michael O’Neill’s team are in a group which contains two teams, Russia and Portugal, who are clearly superior and one in Israel who is statistically superior. According to the FIFA rankings.

Azerbaijan, at home, is a game which O’Neill will be expecting Northern Ireland to win at 7/10 but the Berti Vogts coached Azerbaijan side will be no pushover. Russia only managed a 1-0 win over them in Moscow last month.

So why does this game matter? A win will put Northern Ireland on five points, just two behind Portugal and Israel in joint second. In the realm of football being a funny old game where anything can happen, as long it’s mathematically possible, it’s possible. Believe.

Qualification aside, with Azerbaijan closing in on their FIFA rankings a win for Northern Ireland will prove that they remain a level above such emerging football nations. As well as strengthening their own ranking, which will effect seeding for future tournament qualifications. Which is not pointless.

Scotland

vs Luxembourg, Stade Josy Barthel, Luxembourg City – Wednesday 7.15pm, ESPN
Under the careful eye of caretaker manager Billy Stark, the Scotland team have a massive game against Luxemburg looming on the horizon. They have a chance to rise above Uzbekistan in the FIFA rankings and into the elusive top 69 football teams in the world.

Anything but a win and the Scottish could fall to 74th, beneath Guinea, Morocco and Togo. It is a game that could have humiliating consequences for a country already tarred by producing Michelle McManus.

They have won just one game in seven this calendar year against Australia but can still make an unlikely bid for World Cup Qualification. Despite being eight points off Croatia and Belgium, a run of good results, a new gaffer and some self-belief can go a long way to prevent embarrassing results like being thumped 5-1 by the Yanks.

On a scale of likeliness starting at Michael Barrymore becoming a lifeguard, going up to the Pope heading to mass on Christmas Eve, the chances of Scotland making an appearance at Rio 2014 is somewhere left of centre.

But it is no means impossible, and a confidence-boosting friendly win is the first step. The odds of 8/13 about Scotland winning is a fair reflection of the gulf in class.

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