Football Watch: International sides take centre stage as club season ends

Virgil van Dijk of Liverpool and Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur compete for the ball during the Champions League final. (PHOTO: Etsuo Hara/Getty Images)

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SINGAPORE — Liverpool’s victory in the Champions League final on Saturday (1 June) marked the completion of the 2018/19 European club season.

But this does not mean that football has come to an end. Quite the opposite, as the national teams around the world get ready for a spate of competitions, qualifiers and friendlies.

From the new Uefa Nations League, to the starts of the Euro 2020 qualifying, to the quadrennial Women’s World Cup, the matches will be coming in thick and fast.

Which national teams will enjoy a great summer, and which teams need some fine-tuning to improve for the future?

Uefa Nations League semi-finals

The inaugural Uefa Nations League tournament is set to reach its finale this week, with the semi-finals happening midweek and the final to be held on Sunday (9 June) in Portugal.

In the first semi-final on Tuesday, reigning European champions Portugal will take on Switzerland at Porto’s Estadio do Dragao. All eyes will naturally be on superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, as he is likely to earn his record 157th international cap for the hosts.

With a strong midfield featuring the likes of Joao Moutinho, Bernardo Silva and Joao Felix, Portugal are expected to beat Switzerland. Yet the usually-obdurate Swiss may spring a surprise, especially with the mercurial presence of Liverpool’s Xherdan Shaqiri and the steady influence of Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka.

The second semi-final is the one which sets pulses racing, as England take on the Netherlands in Guimaraes. The Dutchmen have quickly rebuilt after their failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup Finals, and now feature Liverpool’s star defender Virgil van Dijk as captain and a slew of young talents from the Ajax Amsterdam team which made the Champions League semi-finals.

England, semi-finalists at the last World Cup, are also in prime form after scoring five goals in each of their last two matches. However, captain and key striker Harry Kane has just recovered from an ankle injury, and played poorly against van Dijk when his Tottenham side lost in the Champions League final. Can Kane and his teammates extend their winning run to six matches?

Fifa Women’s World Cup: Germany v China

France will be hosting the Fifa Women’s World Cup, which will see 24 sides battling for women’s football’s top trophy from Friday to 7 July.

With the two favourites – defending champions United States and 2011 winners Japan – not playing their opening group matches until early next week, all eyes will be on two-time former champions Germany as they take on China in Rennes on Saturday.

While Germany were the dominant force in women’s football in the 2000s, winning the 2003 and 2007 World Cups, they are currently a team in transition with the retirements of many long-time stalwarts.

While they are reigning Olympic champions, they had also suffered an early exit in the 2018 European Championships. Still, they have talented playmaker Dzsenifer Marozsan to depend on to create and score, and should have too much firepower against China.

The Chinese, who were runners-up in the 2018 Asian Games behind Japan, have a great striker in Wang Shuang, the reigning Asian Player of the Year who has been dubbed “the female Lionel Messi” by China’s fervent media.

Can China spring a big upset against Germany? Wang will be key to their giant-killing hopes.

Euro 2020 qualifiers: Turkey v France

While four European nations are competing in the Nations League, the rest of the countries will have Euro 2020 qualifiers to contend with this week.The matches to watch will feature traditional European powerhouses in action.

Germany, in rebuilding mode after a poor 2018 World Cup, are away against Belarus and eager to build upon an encouraging 3-2 over the Netherlands in their previous match. Meanwhile, Italy will also aim to build upon an encouraging start by new coach Roberto Mancini and pick up an away victory over Euro 2004 winners Greece.

Finally, reigning World Cup champions France will take on in-form Turkey, who are unbeaten in their past five matches. The French, themselves unbeaten in four games, will have stars like Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba available and should be favourites to win.

Yet Turkey are undergoing a resurgence, with the recent return of national coach Senol Gunes, who had guided them to their biggest success – third place in the 2002 World Cup. They will need key striker, Everton’s Cenk Tosun, to take whatever chances presented to him clinically to have an opportunity at an upset win.

Can Germany, Italy and France successfully negotiate these tricky away ties?

International friendlies: S’pore v Solomon Islands

Away from Europe, international sides are also in action, playing in friendlies as build-ups to the upcoming regional competitions such as Copa America and the African Nations Cup.

There are some interesting match-ups. For instance, five-time World Cup champions Brazil will face reigning Asian champions Qatar in Brasilia on Thursday. Qatar will be eager to find out how they fare against the mighty Brazilians, even though Neymar and his teammates will likely be too much for the 2022 World Cup hosts.

Another intriguing match will see South Korea taking on Australia on Friday. The Koreans had a poor outing in January’s Asian Cup, crashing out in the quarter-finals against eventual winners Qatar. Their Portuguese head coach Paulo Bento is under pressure to shape a cohesive side around star player Son Heung-min when the 2022 World Cup qualifiers begin later this year.

Australia, meanwhile, also need to bounce back after their failed Asian Cup title defence as they lost to the United Arab Emirates in the quarter-finals. Head coach Graham Arnold, in his second spell leading the national team, has picked an experimental side against the South Koreans and hopes to eventually find a settled team for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers.

The Singapore national side will also be playing an international friendly against the Solomon Islands on Saturday. They have just appointed a new head coach in Tatsuma Yoshida, and the Japanese will be in charge for the first time at the National Stadium.

Can Yoshida begin his Singapore coaching tenure with a victory? Much will depend on how quickly the Lions’ key stalwarts such as Hariss Harun and Faris Ramli can adapt to the Japanese’s football philosophy.

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