As ever it was an international break of contrasting emotions. There is, of course, the tedium that international football sometimes brings, especially in Europe where identikit sides play out a standard of football that does not always compare well to the continental club game. Still, with places at next summer’s FIFA World Cup in Brazil at stake there was real tension in dozens of qualifying games across the globe. Not least for the dozen or so Manchester United players for whom next summer may bring glory, or an extended break.
And with the conclusion of the qualifying round – save for the few remaining play-offs – up to a dozen Reds will go to the World Cup in Brazil, with another handful hoping to make it through a final eliminator.
At home Roy Hodgson’s England qualified, in the end, with some ease, beating Montenegro and Poland in a double-header to clinch top spot in UEFA Group H. While England’s quality and playing style has been oft-criticised since an abominable showing at Euro 2012, Hodgson can legitimately point to a gradually improving side.
England is certainly some way short of the very best, but draw dependent will hope to qualify for the knock-out stages in Brazil, although a FIFA ranking of 10 means that Hodgson’s side will not be seeded.
Wayne Rooney scored the crucial opener in England’s 2-0 victory over Poland at Wembley on Tuesday, with Danny Welbeck and Michael Carrick also certain to be on the plane. Rooney’s strike against Poland was his 38th England goal – a sixth in eight matches this year – and a one scored without the protective headband worn in recent weeks.
“I went for a header just before the goal and it got knocked off,” said the 27-year-old, who is on course to beat Bobby Charlton’s England scoring record of 49 goals.
“Then I chased back and it was obviously still up there on the pitch as I didn’t have time to go back and get it. It probably helped me in some ways that it was off when the ball came in because I could direct it better. It is the first time I have headed the ball without it on, but hopefully come the weekend I won’t have to wear it.”
Chris Smalling and Phil Jones should also make the party, with Tom Cleverley’s participation very much dependent on the 23-year-old sealing a place in David Moyes’ United team. Ashley Young is seemingly out of favour at both club and international level, with Wilfried Zaha relegated to the under-21s for the time being.
However, former Red Ravel Morrison’s form is such that the West Ham United player could yet be a surprise call-up for the full team ahead of the World Cup.
Elsewhere in Europe there were mixed fortunes for Reds. David de Gea’s Spain qualified with predictable ease, although the 22-year-old ‘keeper will only go to Brazil if one or more of Vicente del Bosque’s first choice stoppers pulls out with injury. That said there is a legitimate observation that while Spain boasts strength in goalkeeping depth there are doubts about each of the leading contenders: Iker Casillas, Pepe Reina and Victor Valdes.
On the island of Ireland both north and south missed out on World Cup qualification. The Republic’s chances were officially extinguished by Germany last week, although in reality qualification has long since been a forlorn hope. Worse news came for former Red Darron Gibson who suffered a serious knee injury and is likely to miss the rest of the season.
In the north Jonny Evans was sent off against Azerbaijan as the Ulstermen finished fifth in a group of six, with qualification for a first major tournament since 1982 seemingly no nearer.
Meanwhile, in continental Europe Belgium beat Croatia in Zagreb to seal qualification, before playing out a tame 1-1 draw with Wales in Brussels. Marouanne Fellaini will be on the plane to Rio, although the midfielder’s disciplinary record is a genuine concern – United’s £27.5 million player missed the fixture with Wales due to suspension.
Youthful star Adnan Januzaj has a legitimate shot at making the Belgium squad, continued development permitting, although the 18-year-old has consistently refused call-ups at youth level. The Brussels-born winger is Kosovar-Albanian by parentage and eligible for Belgium, Albania, Serbia and the non-affiliated Kosovo at international level.
Neighbours Holland qualified undefeated as Robin van Persie became the leading scorer in the country’s history with a hat-trick in the Oranje’s 8-1 mauling of Hungary last week. van Persie’s 41 goals in 81 internationals now beats Patrick Kluivert’s 40 in 79.
“My record had to be broken eventually,” Kluivert told Dutch television.
“I’m delighted because Robin and I work together ahead of each international. It’s only a pleasure for me as an assistant coach that he scores so often. I held the record for 10 years and I’m really proud of that.”
Elsewhere Patrice Evra and Nani will face play-off eliminators in November, with France and Portugal finishing second in Groups F and I. The play-off draw takes place on Monday, with a clash between the two European heavyweights possible. Croatia, Sweden, Ukraine, Romania, Iceland, and Greece make up the eight European teams fighting for the final four spots in Brazil.
In South American Antonio Valencia’s Ecuador qualified for Brazil 2014 with a 1-0 victory over Uruguay, although La Tri lost a final CONMEBOL fixture away at Ángelo Henríquez’ Chile in Santiago. Henríquez has scored twice in three full internationals to date, but is only an outside bet to make the final World Cup squad.
Finally, hosts Brazil beat South Korea and Zambia in friendlies this week. Neither of the da Silva brothers made the Seleção or is likely to unless injuries force manager Luiz Felipe Scolari’s hand.
Further north Javier Hernández sat on the bench as Mexico had the United States to thank for a World Cup lifeline. El Tricolor’s dismal qualification campaign will conclude with a play-off against Oceana’s New Zealand in November, but Mexico remain in the competition only after the USA scored twice in the last three minutes to beat Panama 3-2 in Panama City on Tuesday.
Hernández will go should Mexico qualify, but a starting place is no longer guaranteed. The 25-year-old has scored 35 goals in 53 internationals, but has featured in just two Premier League games for David Moyes this season.
In Asia Japan long since qualified for the World Cup, although Shinji Kagawa complained after the Japanese lost to both Serbia and Belarus in friendlies this week. The United midfielder believes that lack of domestic football is negatively affecting his performances at international level. It is a patter at Old Trafford that threatens to cause much disquiet among Moyes’ squad.
“There’s a matter of fitness and there’s also that atmosphere of playing for my country,” Kagawa said.
“Maybe it’s because I’m not used to being on the pitch of late, but I didn’t feel like I was able to enter these two games properly. I felt strongly after these two matches that I need to play more.”
The same might be said for Cleverley, Smalling, Jones and Hernández – one of many challenges facing Moyes in a year when everyone wants to play.