Football Features

From Eriksen’s return to Salah-vs-Mane The Sequel: 10 stories to look out for this international break

By Ben Green

Published: 16:49, 21 March 2022

Club football takes a brief hiatus from its unrelenting schedule to make way for an international break of high stakes, high reward and potential heartbreaks.

Football’s unprecedented winter World Cup inches ever closer and this month we’ll find out which nations will be on the plane to Qatar in November, as the qualifiers reach their much-anticipated conclusions. There are a spate of fixtures taking place in Europe, South America, Asia, Africa and North America.

Of course, it’s not just qualifiers ensuing over the next fortnight or so. Managers who have already booked their tickets will also be given an opportunity to test their respective squads ahead of November’s quadrennial showpiece, with a slew of friendlies taking place across the globe, including two brush-ups for England.

With so much action taking place in all four quarters of the world, it will be almost impossible to keep up. So, we’ve picked out a selection of some of the most vital and eye-catching storylines for you to keep track off during March’s international break. Read on below for a full breakdown.

World Cup outright odds from William Hill

  • Brazil 11/2
  • France 6/1
  • England 7/1
  • Spain 8/1
  • Germany 9/1 
  • Argentina 10/1

You must be 18+ to gamble. For more information, visit Be Gamble Aware. All odds accurate at the time of writing.

1. Elanga’s first call-up in nation-defining month

Manchester United have not had much to celebrate since the turn of the year, having been eliminated from both the Champions League and FA Cup, but the continued emergence of fledgling forward Anthony Elanga has been something to cling onto and genuinely get excited about.

Elanga has produced a string of impressive showings, catching the eye with exhibitions of dazzling skill, movement and a perceptual understanding of the ball and the pitch around him. His efforts at Old Trafford have seen him rewarded with a call-up to the Sweden national team, and it’s a huge month for the nation.

Having finished second in Group B of Europe’s World Cup qualifiers, Janne Andersson’s Blagult must go through the play-offs if they are to make Qatar. They face a one-off showdown against Czech Republic in Path B’s semi-final, before Poland await in a winner-takes-all contest on March 29.

2. Eriksen is back!

Christian Eriksen has returned to Denmark’s international fold for the first time since he suffered a cardiac arrest last summer. The 30-year-old went down during Euro 2020 and has subsequently been fitted with an implanted cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD) following the episode. Having been released by Inter Milan in January, the former Tottenham playmaker returned to London to join Brentford under compatriot Thomas Frank on deadline day, and he has since played three times, assisting Ivan Toney in the club’s recent 2-0 win over Burnley. Already-qualified Denmark play friendlies against the Netherlands and Serbia this month.

3. Mane vs Salah: The Sequel

The Sadio Mane vs Mohamed Salah subplot dominated the final of Afcon 2021 as Senegal beat Egypt on penalties last month. The two nations are now set to renew their rivalry this international break with a chance to play at the World Cup.

Having topped Group F and Group H of CAF’s qualifiers respectively, Egypt and Senegal meet in the continent’s ‘Third Round’ for a double-header that will gain one of them access to Qatar. It’s set to be another nerve-jangling spectacle with so much on the line, and another lesson in dressing-room diplomacy from Jurgen Klopp when his two key men return to Anfield in contrasting emotions. 

4. Italy and Portugal could go head-to-head

In Path C’s qualifier play-offs there is the potential for an Italy vs Portugal match-up, which would really whet the appetite for fans craving an elite match-up this month. Italy must first navigate North Macedonia in their penultimate game on Thursday, while Portugal take on Turkey looking to reach the play-off final.

There are echoes of 2018 for Italy, who failed to qualify for football’s blue-riband competition for the first time since 1958, leading to widespread backlash and a national sense of mourning for the four-time winners. Roberto Mancini’s European champions will now be looking to exorcise the demons from four years ago.

As for Portugal, they’ve made every tournament this century and have a squad padded out with world class quality, a roster that looks more like a Ballon d’Or shortlist than an international roll call. At 37, Cristiano Ronaldo will be desperate to ensure he’s making what could be a final World Cup of his trophy-strewn career, though if he misses out, it will be the first international tournament he has missed since making his bow in 2003.

5. Serbia’s scintillating strike force

Every so often a nation will come across a ‘Golden Generation’ and Serbia are arguably in the midst of one at the minute. Dusan Vlahovic is the latest to burst onto the scene and rise to meteoric prominence, completing a frontline that could see him line up in any number of combinations alongside Ajax’s creative grandmaster Dusan Tadic, Championship bully Aleksandar Mitrovic and Luka Jovic, who still has Real Madrid status.

Vlahovic is enjoying a season that has seen him score 25 goals in all competitions for Fiorentina and Juventus, while Mitrovic has bagged 35 Championship goals for Fulham in just 34 games, which is the most in a single campaign for the English second tier, and there’s still nine games left!

Further back Dragan Stojkovic’s boasts Sergej Milinkovic-Savic of Lazio, Frankfurt’s playmaker wing-back Filip Kostic, Nikola Milenkovic at centre-back and three high-quality ‘keepers in Predrag Rajkovic, Marko Dmitrovic and Vanja Milinkovic-Savic. It’s a seriously stacked squad.

World Cup Qualifying – Europe – Path B Winner Odds William Hill

  • Poland 4/6
  • Sweden 15/8
  • Czech Republic 9/2

You must be 18+ to gamble. For more information, visit Be Gamble Aware. All odds accurate at the time of writing.

6. A Brazilian bambino

Gabriel Martinelli has earned his first call-up to the Brazilian national team as the Selecao look to wrap up first place in CONMEBOL’s qualification table. The 20-year-old forward has been one of the main attacking instigators in Arsenal’s rapid ascent following that disastrous start to the Premier League season.

Endowed with a close control almost synonymous with Brazilian attackers, Martinelli has all the attributes of a Selecao star and should slot in nicely to Tite’s system. The already-qualified nation face games against Chile and Bolivia, while their abandoned match against Argentina is yet to be replayed.

7. Scotland to play Poland in last-ditch friendly

Both Scotland and Poland were due to take part in the semi-finals of Europe’s qualifying play-offs this month, and while the latter have been given a pass to the final of Path B’s showpiece against one of Sweden or Czech Republic, the latter have seen their match against Ukraine postponed for the time being. In place of those fixtures Scotland and Poland will now play an international friendly to keep busy at Hampden Park on March 24. 

8. Another Brazilian in Blue

Brazilian-born players representing Italy is nothing new, the lineage stretches back decades. In fact, since the 2010s, Amauri, Thiago Motta, Eder, Jorginho, Emerson Palmieri and Rafael Toloi have all donned the iconic Azzurri jersey, despite being born across the Atlantic. And another could make that list.

Cagliari’s Joao Pedro, a former Brazil U17 player and a product of Atletico Mineiro’s academy has been called up to the Italy national team by Mancini. The 30-year-old, who is an Italian citizen by marriage and has been playing in lo Stivale since 2010, will now be hoping to make his international bow this month, and boy are the stakes high!

World Cup Qualifying – Europe – Path C Winner Odds William Hill

  • Portugal EVS
  • Italy EVS
  • Turkey 10/1
  • North Macedonia 33/1

You must be 18+ to gamble. For more information, visit Be Gamble Aware. All odds accurate at the time of writing.

9. Modric to surpass Mascherano, move level with Marquez

Luka Modric will turn 37 this year but his international inclusion sees meritocracy trump tokenism. Despite entering what should be the dotage years of his playing career, the pint-sized midfield conductor is still playing like a man possessed, ageing like the finest Tuscan wine; he is a Madrileño metronome of unparalleled quality.

That was evident as Real produced their own mini-remontada against PSG in the Champions League earlier this month, with Modric pulling the midfield strings, and despite the weekend’s chastening capitulation in Spain’s much-vaunted Clasico, Modric comes into Croatia’s friendlies against Slovenia and Bulgaria in the finest of nicks.

Already capped 146 times, Modric could play twice this month which would move him ahead of Javier Mascherano (147 caps for Argentina) and level with Rafael Marquez (148 caps for Mexico) in the all-time charts for international appearance-makers in men’s football. The latter category would move him joint-36th in the overall standings.

10. Peru’s proverbial six-pointer vs Uruguay

Things are really starting to heat up in South America’s World Cup qualifiers and Peru face a proverbial six-pointer with Uruguay that could see the two nations trade places ahead of next week’s final set of fixtures. As it stands, Uruguay occupy the final automatic qualification place (fourth), while Peru are just one place below them in the inter-confederation play-off position (fifth). With just a point separating both nations, Thursday’s showdown could prove the decisive game to see who will definitively be at Qatar later this year.

Uruguay, now managed by former Atletico Madrid and Valencia striker Diego Alonso following Oscar Tabarez’s dismissal last year — bringing the curtain down on 15 years in the dugout — have a squad replete with star names, including the nation’s ‘Golden Generation’ duo Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, who both recently turned 35. The veteran sharp-shooters will no doubt be itching to get the job done against Peru and have one final shot at World Cup glory, if this is to be their final tournament.