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Scotland v England Preview | 10 June 18:00
After a long, hard season, the last thing most coaches and players would have wanted was to contest a fixture as old as the international game itself.
UEFA’s World Cup qualifying dictates that Scotland host England in mid-June in a match that neither side will find easy.
It is a fixture embedded with history and one looked upon with trepidation from both camps as much as anything else.
For the hosts, it’s a chance to put one over the Auld Enemy – a rare occurrence in the modern game, especially with Scotland’s last home win over England coming back in 1985, courtesy of a Richard Gough header from a Jim Bett cross.
Gareth Southgate, meanwhile, will be hoping bookmakers’ odds-on quotes about his charges claiming all three points will be justified.
In the stands, the atmosphere will be as good as it gets for a qualifier.
On the pitch, it appears England are expecting a battle – why else take your squad to an army bootcamp in preparation?
Southgate has been hailed as something of an innovator in his short time as England coach; I initially thought he had regressed to the 1980s when I first heard about the team’s Royal Marines drills in training.
There’s some great footage on YouTube of an old Football Focus feature in which Dave Bassett takes his Wimbledon team for a day in fatigues, in which Vinny Jones, Dennis Wise and company essentially giggle their way over an assault course all to the tune of Colonel Bogey.
I didn’t see many laughs when Jermaine Defoe was getting dunked under the ‘Sheep Dip’ in Devon earlier this week, and it might worry England fans that Southgate feels he needs a team bonding session such as this to focus his players.
Maybe he really is expecting a physical confrontation at Hamden Park
Although from what we’ve seen of Scotland over the course of qualifying this might not be the case.
With just two wins from five fixtures Gordon Strachan’s side have lacked a little fight over the last nine months and are only fourth in Group F, six points behind section leaders England who remain unbeaten and are yet to concede a goal.
When the teams met at Wembley back November, Southgate was overseeing just his third game in what was then temporary charge.
A 3-0 success wasn’t all what it seemed, with the Scots having some good opportunities when trailing 1-0.
Distribution from defensive positions was poor from the home side with Gary Cahlll and John Stones – likely to pair up again at the back in Glasgow – guilty of some wayward passing.
Southgate’s experimental switch to back three against Germany in England’s last away game – albeit a friendly – saw some nervousness in defence. This was before a Stones-Michael Keane combination enjoyed an easy night at home to Lithuania in a routine 2-0 qualifying win.
Despite England’s unblemished defensive record in qualifying, I do see Scotland scoring.
It’s something they’ve done in every one of their last 12 home games – a run that stretches back to November 2013 when they drew 0-0 with USA.
The Celtic pair of Stuart Armstrong and Leigh Griffiths, who can boast 27 league goals between them this term, are just the type of strikers to unsettle the English rearguard.
The Three Lions have so much going forward, though, that I can’t see England failing to score either.
Scotland can boast only one clean sheet in their last eight internationals
And with Harry Kane in such prolific form for Tottenham – seven goals in his last two appearances and five hattricks since the turn of the year – the visitors should have enough to claim a win that would put them on the brink of qualification for next year’s final.
Betting odds on Scotland v England
Sweden v France Preview | 9 June 19:45
Didier Deschamps’ decision to leave Karim Benzema out of France squads since late 2015 continues to bewilder some in the game.
Les Bleus coach has railed against claims from the Real Madrid forward that he has avoided telling him the reason why, saying: ‘This group was built before Euro 2016 and solidified during that competition, in which we reached the final’.
Harmony amongst his players is paramount, it would appear, and while the defeat to Portugal in Paris last summer must still sting, the fact remains France have lost just once since that extra-time defeat and only twice in a 19-game run stretching back two years.
With the emergence of a number of Monaco players – including Kylian Mbappe, Thomas Lemar, Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibe – for Deschamps to choose from along with an already hugely talented squad, France look serious contenders for World Cup glory in 2018.
France face Sweden with the knowledge that a win would almost stamp their ticket to Russia.
The Scandinavians are three points behind France in Group A and success for Janne Andersson’s team would see them top the section.
In Emil Forsberg they have a much-coveted and supremely gifted midfielder, but the RB Leipzig man’s qualities won’t be enough to halt the visitors.
Betting odds on Sweden v France
Serbia v Wales Preview | 11 June 20:45
Wales wowed everyone at Euro 2016, but Chris Coleman is finding out just how hard it is to follow up one tournament success with another, with his side floundering in third place in group D behind Serbia and the Republic of Ireland, some four points off even a play-off spot.
On Sunday, away at the section leaders, Gareth Bale will be missing through suspension. The Welsh are certain to have it tough against a resurgent Serbian outfit who will be looking to take advantage, looking to not just the absence of the Real Madrid star (who misses a competitive game for the first time in three years), but also the uncertainty surrounding Coleman’s future.
The former Crystal Palace defender has been linked with a return to Selhurst Park and his decision to stay or go could be hastened after the game in Belgrade.
On home turf in front of a packed Stadion Rajko Mitić – scene of a 6-1 home win over the Welsh back in 2012 – Serbia will be formidable and are taken to wrap up a win that would push Slavoljub Muslin’s team closer to qualification.