7 Stories to Look Out for in the March International Break
1. New Beginnings: Portugal Start Life With Roberto Martinez
Roberto Martinez should have a comfortable settling-in period, his Portugal side take on Liechtenstein at home and then travel to play an ever-improving Luxembourg. The bigger questions may well be about Martinez’s squad selection rather than the on-field performances.
The former Belgium manager has been questioned about his respect for ‘big name’ players in the past, his stubborn refusal to replace Eden Hazard with in-form Leandro Trossard at the World Cup drew criticism from Red Devils fans, while many thought Lois Openda would have sharpened a blunt forward line but his minutes were also limited.
It remains to be seen how Martinez navigates the Cristiano Ronaldo situation, but he’ll be looking to make use of an attacking arsenal ranging from Bruno Fernandes to Rafael Leao to Goncalo Ramos, with their fixtures coming on March 23 and 26.
2. Groundbreaking Territory for Mongolia
Perhaps the most historic event of the upcoming international fixtures will be when Mongolia travel to Georgia on March 25. The Central Asian side, known as the Blue Wolves or Genghis Khan will play their first-ever match against European opposition.
To add some context about just how big a stride forward this is for Mongolian football, as recently as 2021 they lost 14-0 to Japan in a World Cup Qualifying match. But results have steadily improved under Japanese coach Ichiro Otsuka and Mongolia even have a European export – 22-year-old Ganbold Ganbayar now plies his trade in the Slovakian second division with KFC Kormarno. Regardless of the result, Mongolia players will undoubtedly be hoping Khvicha Kvaratskhelia isn’t rested for this one-off occasion.
3. World Champions Return to Action
Thousands of adoring Albiceleste fans will have the chance to see their heroes live in action on home soil for the first time since their triumph in Qatar. The AFA has scheduled two friendlies, both at home, against Panama and Curacao respectively. Fans were quick to point out the friendlies have a strong ‘showcase’ feel about them, with their opposition ranked 61st and 79th.
4. Exciting Times for Nigeria
The Super Eagles are absolutely flooded with attacking talent, so much so that the real question is how to squeeze as many into the team as possible without disrupting the balance. Ademola Lookman and Victor Osimhen are tearing up Serie A with over 30 goals between them, Paul Onuachu has just recently earned a Premier League move off the back of his excellent form in Belgium, currently sitting one goal clear in the top scorers race despite joining Southampton in January.
Terem Moffi has 14 in 22 in Ligue 1, with the Nigerian earning a move to Nice in January, whilst Samuel Chukwueze is having a great season in La Liga and Kelechi Iheanacho is nominated for Player of the Month for February for his performances for Leicester City. Nigeria fans should be able to sit back and enjoy a doubleheader against Guinea-Bissau, but of course, it’s never that simple.
5. Repeat of the Euro 2020 Final in Naples
Italy will play for the first time since having to watch the World Cup from the sidelines, taking on a wounded England side after their disappointment of a quarter-final exit from the same tournament. The fixture marks the start of Euro 2024 qualifying for both sides and could prove to be an important game come the end of the campaign. Ukraine also lurk in a group where only two teams automatically qualify and Italy have recent history with shocking qualification exits. Both teams will look to start strongly when they meet at the Diego Armando Maradona stadium on March 23.
6. All to Play for in the CONCACAF Nations League
As we head into the final round of inaugural CONCACAF Nations League fixtures, the groups are largely still competitive. Jamaica, currently top of Group A in League A, take on Mexico at the Azteca on March 27th. A win would see the Reggae Boyz top the group but an undeniably difficult task lies ahead. Elsewhere, the US travel to Grenada and take on El Salvador, two matches Gregg Berhalter’s men will expect to win, whilst Canada likely face a ‘winner takes all’ decider with Honduras in Toronto on March 29th.
The CONCACAF Nations League is rightly being hailed as a success. The 41-team tournament allows all of the association’s members to play a significant amount of competitive games, a change many thought impossible not too long ago.
7. Fresh New Faces
As always one of the most exciting parts of the break is the pure joy of players receiving their first international call-up. March’s break is no different with new talents emerging since the World Cup. Ronald Koeman may well have a look at Toulouse creative midfielder Branco Van Den Boomen for his first Netherlands squad, Bart Verbruggen may also be an option in goal as he continues to impress with Anderlecht.
Folarin Balogun will presumably have pressure from USA, England and Nigeria to come to a decision sooner or later about his future, given his sensational goalscoring feats in Ligue 1. But truth be told the striker doesn’t need to rush his decision before the end of the season. Alejandro Garnacho has indeed been called up by Argentina before, but the 18-year-old could be in line to get his first actual minutes in one of the two friendly games.
Luis Enrique kept the media on their toes with his unorthodox Spain selections, Luis De La Fuente appears similarly hard to read. He is however expected to call up Celta Vigo breakout star Gabri Veiga who is already linked to a big move. Rico Lewis, Morgan Gibbs-White and Eddie Nketiah are all outsiders to make their first step up to the England senior squad.
By: Wilf MacDonnell / @WilfMacdonnell
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / FEP / Icon Sport