It’s March of a World Cup year. That means, less than three months before this summer’s tournament kicks off, it’s time for preparations to begin in earnest.
It’s the international break, and between Thursday and next Tuesday, 31 of the 32 teams on their way to Russia in June will be playing two friendlies. Belgium, the 32nd, will play one. The 32 will play a combined 42 games, some against one another, some against World Cup outsiders.
And when they do, World Cup squad places will be on the line. Starting spots will be up for grabs. Most friendlies are relatively meaningless, but these – and the two or three each team will play in May and June – aren’t.
So they’re worth watching. And they’re worth watching for specific reasons. Below are 12 things to watch for over the next five days, with a TV schedule interspersed.
All game times ET
1. Time for Argentina to start sorting itself out
If there’s one team for whom friendly results matter in March, it’s surely Argentina. The gap between talent/potential and performance throughout 2017 was as wide as ever – and wider for the Albiceleste than for any other nation. Manager Jorge Sampaoli has now had months to ruminate on solutions, and strategies for jamming his puzzle pieces together. Games against Italy and Spain will be his first opportunity to put plans into action.
His first experiments, interestingly, won’t involve Juventus playmaker Paolo Dybala. He, along with Mauro Icardi and Javier Pastore, was left off the squad altogether. So who of Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, and a litany of other attackers will Sampaoli try alongside Messi? That will give us a window into his problem-solving process. But the bigger question for Argentina remains, will any of his experiments work?
Argentina: Italy (Friday, 3:45 p.m., beIN Sports, beIN Sports en Español), Spain (Tuesday, 3:30 p.m., ESPN Deportes, ESPN3)
2. Could Neymar’s absence be a blessing in disguise for Brazil?
While Argentina figures out how to build around its star, Brazil will be learning how to play without its star. Neymar is sidelined until at least May with a foot injury. His health will be one of the biggest stories in the buildup to the World Cup. But his absence for friendlies against Russia and Germany? It’s almost a non-story.
That’s because Brazil has fewer question marks heading to Russia than anybody else. Tite has already named 15 members of his 23-man squad, assuming health. His starting lineup is effectively set, with only one or two “either-or”s. So the March friendlies, rather than being missed opportunities with Neymar ailing, are chances to form Plan Bs – perhaps for Willian and Philippe Coutinho to start together rather than fight for one spot, or for Roberto Firmino to play alongside one of those two and Gabriel Jesus. There’s even a chance Brazil develops as an attacking unit without its catalyst, and that the development comes in handy in late June or July.
Brazil: Russia (Friday, noon, beIN Sports, beIN Sports en Español), Germany (Tuesday, 2:45 p.m., ESPN3)
3. Lineup questions – the good kind – for France
Almost every country not named Brazil has lineup questions. Perhaps no country has more than France. But unlike others’, starting spots aren’t up for grabs due to a lack of options; they’re up for grabs due to a surplus of world-class talent. Almost every midfielder and attacker in Didier Deschamps’ March squad, save for maybe two, is a realistic candidate.
The only one assured of a place would seem to be Antoine Griezmann. There are others whose names would elicit reactions like, He has to start! But there are so many of them – N’Golo Kante, Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe, to begin – and so many others pushing them – Blaise Matuidi, Adrien Rabiot, Corentin Tolisso, Thomas Lemar, Anthony Martial, Ousmane Dembele, Olivier Giroud – that it’s difficult to write any on the team sheet in permanent marker. Deschamps’ lineups against Colombia and Russia, therefore, will provide helpful hints.
France: Colombia (Friday, 4 p.m., ESPN Deportes, ESPN3), Russia (Tuesday, 11:50 a.m., ESPN Deportes, ESPN3)
4. Lineup questions – the bad kind – for England
England, out of nowhere, is starved of sure-fire starters, because its squad is starved of players who start regularly for their club teams. Harry Kane (currently injured) is one. Kyle Walker is probably two. After that?
There’s an open four-man competition in net. Harry Maguire and John Stones look like the center backs, but aren’t secure. Danny Rose has become a backup at Tottenham, and could be supplanted by Ryan Bertrand or Ashley Young. The midfield is a mess, with only Eric Dier a solid bet – if, that is, he doesn’t start at center back.
Which leads us to the other question: the formation. Southgate experimented with a 3-4-2-1 in November. That, though, was with an understrength squad against the two best teams in the world. What will he go with against two lesser foes with an A-minus team?
England: Netherlands (Friday, 3:45 p.m.), Italy (Tuesday, 3 p.m., Fox Sports 1, Fox Deportes)
5. Lineup questions – the systemic kind – for Germany
Joachim Low has a World Cup trophy and a ton of talent at his disposal, but he’s seemingly not quite sure how that talent will fit together – or what formation it will fit into. He, like Gareth Southgate, has toyed with a three-at-the-back system. Will he pilot it again now that preparation time is getting precious?
Whether he goes 4-2-3-1 or 3-4-2-1, his biggest personnel decision will be how to structure his midfield – presumably around Toni Kroos.
Germany: Spain (Friday, 3:45 p.m., ESPN3), Brazil (Tuesday, 2:45 p.m., ESPN3)
6. Lineup questions – and potential bold answers – for Belgium
This one’s simple. Roberto Martinez has Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Romelu Lukaku. He’s been playing with three center backs and two wing backs. That leaves five lineup spots for midfielders and attackers. Will he give four of those to his four stars, and the fifth to someone like Mousa Dembele? If not, which of the four gets left out? De Bruyne’s shift into a deeper role at Manchester City this season could help Martinez in this regard, but leaving Dembele as the lone (somewhat) defensive midfielder seems a bit reckless. We’ll see whether Martinez agrees with that assessment on Tuesday.
Belgium: Saudi Arabia (Tuesday, 2:45 p.m., ESPN3)
7. Diego Costa’s return
Costa hasn’t played for Spain in over nine months. With Alvaro Morata out of the March squad, though, and with Costa playing regularly again at Atletico, the Brazilian-born striker is about to get his chance to nail down a spot not just in Julen Lopetegui’s 23, but perhaps in his first-choice 11. Morata has let that spot slip from his grasp throughout an up-and-down season at Chelsea. Will Costa pounce against Germany and Argentina?
Spain: Germany (Friday, 3:45 p.m., ESPN3), Argentina (Tuesday, 3:30 p.m., ESPN Deportes, ESPN3)
8. Lineup questions for Portugal, part I – central defense
Surely Portugal can’t go to the World Cup with 36-year-old Bruno Alves, 34-year-old (Chinese Super League-based) Jose Fonte and 35-year-old, injury-riddled Pepe as its top three center backs, right? It’ll be interesting to see if either Rolando or Luis Neto, the other two central defenders in the March squad, get run with the first team. The only promising youngster at the position, Ruben Dias, had to withdraw from the squad due to injury.
9. Lineup questions for Portugal, part II – attack
Ricardo Quaresma is in the March squad. Surely Fernando Santos won’t take him to Russia, or even start him, over the many exciting youngsters who either are in the current 23 (Bernardo Silva, Andre Silva, Gelson Martins, Goncalo Guedes) or were left out (Bruma, Rony Lopes) … right? We’ll begin to learn the answer on Friday and Monday.
Portugal: Egypt (Friday, 3:45 p.m., ESPN3), Netherlands (Monday, 2:30 p.m., ESPN Deportes, ESPN3)
10. Will Uruguay’s kids prove themselves?
Giorgian De Arrascaeta, Nahitan Nandez, Rodrigo Bentancur … get to know the names, and check in to see how many of the three manager Oscar Tabarez plays together in the friendlies. That’ll tell us a lot about how much he trusts his youngsters. And how well they play will tell us a lot about whether Tabarez will turn to them rather than sticking with experience in Russia.
Uruguay: Czech Republic (Friday, 7:35 a.m.), Wales OR China (Monday, early morning)
11. Poland’s Milik dilemma
Poland’s two best players, when fit, are – were – its two strikers, Robert Lewandowski and Arkadiusz Milik. Milik, though, has rarely been fit recently. He’s had horrid luck. He is only now recovering from a second serious knee injury in just over a year. He’s made a few appearances off the bench for Napoli in March, but clearly isn’t yet 100 percent.
He’s in Poland’s squad for games against Nigeria and South Korea, though, and his health will probably determine whether the Poles play with one or two up top. So will they throw Milik right back into the mix in a 4-4-2 in the two friendlies? Or will they proceed without him, at least for now, in a 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1?
Poland: Nigeria (Friday, 3:45 p.m., beIN Sports Connect), South Korea (Tuesday, 2:45 p.m.)
12. Jonathan Gonzalez on Mexico’s roster bubble
Jonathan Gonzalez, the Mexican-American who chose El Tri over the Yanks in January, is once again in Juan Carlos Osorio’s squad for the March friendlies. He made his debut weeks after deciding to represent his parents’ native country, and is being given every chance to make the 23 for the World Cup. He’ll likely need to impress both in camp and in at least one of Mexico’s two games to stay in the mix.
Mexico: Iceland (Friday, 10:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1, Univision), Croatia (Tuesday, 10, p.m., Fox Sports 1, UniMás)
Other notable games on TV/online
Serbia v Morocco (Friday, 3:30 p.m., beIN Sports Connect)
Scotland v Costa Rica (Friday, 3:45 p.m., ESPN3)
Sweden v Chile (Saturday, 1 p.m., beIN Sports, beIN Sports Español)
Egypt v Greece (Tuesday, 2 p.m., ESPN3)
Colombia v Australia (Tuesday, 3 p.m., beIN Sports, beIN Sports Español)
– – – – – – –