By Robin Bairner, Kris Voakes, Enis Koylu, Stefan Coerts, Joe Wright & Tom Webber
Following a dramatic summer at Euro 2012, the countdown to the 2014 World Cup has now well and truly begun.
In a mixed bag of first-round qualifying fixtures, some of Europe’s big guns will have plenty to ponder ahead of Tuesday’s second matches.
All key questions will no doubt be answered as we march further down the road to Brazil, but some things are already becoming obvious.
Read to on discover what Goal.com learned from Friday’s international friendlies…
Laurent Blanc was a big fan of Arsenal midfielder Abou Diaby, but was unable to take the 26-year-old to Euro 2012, as he had hoped, due to injury. In Didier Deschamps’ first match in charge of les Bleus, Diaby was not only back, but he returned with a bang, scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win over Finland and producing a monstrous performance at the heart of the pitch.
If he was not already in Deschamps’ long-term plans for his side, the Paris-born star will be now, having proven himself to be a player around whom the midfield can be built. He provides the physical edge with a figure similar to Alou Diarra, but his athleticism and willingness to push forward showed that he is arguably the best all-round French midfielder in the game at present.
The biggest chance for Deschamps – and more pertinently club boss Arsene Wenger – will be keeping the rangy midfielder fit.
It’s fair to say that Italy looked a shadow of the side that reached the Euro 2012 final as they stumbled their way to a 2-2 draw against Bulgaria in Sofia, and it came as a reminder that there are several areas in which the Azzurri still need to improve if they are to again make it to the big night come World Cup finals time.
Italy were second best on the night, but could still have collected all three points had their coach been quicker to stem the tide as the home side made hay down the right flank for the better part of 90 minutes. Playing with Emanuele Giaccherini on the left in a 3-5-2 gives an extra something in attack, and the Juventus wide man was involved in both of Pablo Osvaldo’s goals, but it also takes something away from them in a defensive respect. Bulgaria exposed them far too often in behind Giaccherini, with Stanislav Manolev in particular enjoying a great deal of space.
Prandelli chose to change to a flat back four only after the Azzurri had been made to pay by way of Georgi Milanov’s equaliser, and also following the coach’s strange decision to bring on the even more attacking Alessandro Diamanti for Giaccherini. Many players were short of their best, most notably Christian Maggio, but Prandelli also needs to up his game. After risking half-fit players in his biggest game as a coach against Spain, he continues to show a tendency to wait until after the horse has bolted before deciding to make use of the gate.
It may have only been the Faroe Islands, but you can only play the teams against which you are drawn. And while Germany struggled to play at their incisive best, one player shone throughout the Hannover encounter: Mesut Ozil.
The 23-year-old produced a masterful performance in the centre of the park, spraying the ball around with class, pulling his weight defensively with some tireless running and, contrary to his critics at Real Madrid, was excellent in front of goal, taking both of the chances presented to him with ease.
His place in Jose Mourinho’s first team has come into doubt recently thanks to the the arrival of Luka Modric, but it needn’t be – on the evidence of Friday’s match, he has all the ability to lead Madrid to another Liga title.
It was pretty clear that Netherlands needed some fresh blood after their disappointing Euro 2012 campaign, but new national team coach Louis van Gaal seems to be going a step too far with his plans to shake things up a bit.
The former Bayern Munich boss fielded two debutants versus Turkey on Friday, while fielding four more players with fewer than 10 international appearances, and the Dutch were very lucky not to drop points in the Amsterdam ArenA.
The 2-0 win looked rather good on paper, but Oranje could very well have ended up losing the game had the Turks had a bit more luck, and Van Gaal would be wise to take things one step at a time as he aims to rebuild his side.
Although Argentina secured a relatively comfortable 3-1 win over Paraguay in Cordoba, it was solely down to a diverse and hugely talented attack, with Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain and Lionel Messi scoring the goals to take the Albicelese to the top of the Conmebol World Cup qualifying table.
But Alejandro Sabella’s side do not possess the same depth in talent further back, and with Javier Mascherano out due to suspension, Argentina lacked defensive solidity more than ever. The combination of Fernando Gago and the 33-year-old Rodrigo Brana, who conceded an idiotic first-half penalty for handball, left the relatively new centre-back pairing of Ezequiel Garay and Federico Fernandez highly exposed.
The use of Brana is frustrating given the fact that he is highly unlikely to be feature in Brazil in 2014, and so Sabella will be desperate to get the likes of Mascherano and Ever Banega back into the squad in order to patch up the frailties in his side that could see them suffer against higher quality opposition.
Portugal – and the football world – were stunned when Daniel De Mota put Luxembourg ahead after just 13 minutes, but the biggest shock in recent international football history was promptly averted when captain Cristiano Ronaldo once again answered his country’s call for aid, finishing smartly to restore parity to proceedings and a faint smile to his face.
But while Portugal were well shy of their best, one man who shone for the somewhat dulled Seleccao was Joao Moutinho. Yes, the opposition were not the strongest Paulo Bento’s side will ever face, but Moutinho recaptured some of his brightest Euro 2012 form as he pulled the strings in the middle of the park and set up Helder Postiga for the winner with a typically measured pass. It must have made for bitter-sweet viewing for Andre Villas-Boas: the Tottenham boss failed to land the Porto maestro on deadline day, and would have watched him guide his country to victory on Friday night with the kind of slick passing display so sorely needed at White Hart Lane this season.