For many fans, international football isn’t a patch on the domestic scene. England fans, for example, have become especially jaded with the performances of their team and often prefer to watch the Premier League. That’s not quite the case in Northern Ireland. It’s been a wonderful few years for the Green and White Army under manager Michael O’Neill. Northern Ireland qualified for Euro 2016 and are en route to repeat the trick for the 2018 World Cup having guaranteed second place in Group C. They’re not, however, guaranteed of a place in the playoffs as one second placed side will be eliminated. That means Northern Ireland still have work to do in their remaining two fixtures, starting with Germany’s trip to Windsor Park on Thursday night.
England look to have sewn up top spot in Group F but there is plenty still to play for in terms of the race for a playoff spot. Slovakia are the side currently in second place and can guarantee they’ll finish there if they beat Scotland on Thursday night and England beat Slovenia at Wembley. That second permutation is outside of Slovakia’s hands and the first one is certainly no gimme against Gordon Strachan’s side. Scotland have already suffered some heart-breaking moments in qualifying but with games against two of the sides above them still to come, they know that two of their biggest performances will at least give them a chance of a World Cup spot.
Two into one does not go. Now that Serbia have guaranteed at least second place in Group D of UEFA World Cup qualifying the writing is on the wall for either Wales or the Republic of Ireland. Only one of them can book their place in Russia and Wales will be looking to make Ireland’s task all the tougher by doing what they’ve never done before – beat Georgia in a competitive fixture.
Belgium are the only side from UEFA qualifying to book their place at the 2018 World Cup so far (except for hosts Russia). That will change over the coming international break with England one of those sides on the verge of qualifying. Gareth Southgate’s men will be assured of their place in Russia with a victory over Slovenia on Thursday night at Wembley Stadium while a draw will be good enough if Slovakia fail to beat Scotland away from home. Southgate will be happy enough to get a successful qualification campaign under his belt but he knows that the hard work starts now. England have a habit of performing well on their way to a tournament before spectacularly crashing and burning when they get there. Southgate does have big tournament experience with the England Under 21s but he still has plenty of work to do to win over the bulk of the England support.
In order to take a horse’s chances of winning the 2000 Guineas seriously they must have shown something special as a juvenile. Therefore, connections of some of those slated for big things next season will be looking for their horses to prove themselves at Newmarket on Saturday at the Middle Park Stakes. This Group 1 race for two-year-old colts is run over six furlongs. That makes it a little short of the distance of the 2000 Guineas, but at this stage in their development it is a great test for the early season Classic. The early betting for the 2000 Guineas suggests that those in the field for the Middle Park Stakes have some improving to do to have a chance of bagging the big one. But things can change quickly when it comes to two-year-olds so this is a race that’s worth paying very close attention to.