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Spotlight on….International Weeks….

There’s something wrong with me. I actually nervously anticipate international football weeks when I can no longer find a decent game four or five days a week. It’s not like I watch football all the time. But I like to have the option in case something tickles my fancy. I don’t like to have to go through pages and pages of Steve McLaren’s dillemas about midfielders; whether Northern Ireland and Scotland have what it takes to qualify; how bad Wales are and whether the Republic of Ireland can complete a miracuolous recovery to save Steve Staunton’s reputation as manager. The problem is, they’re the same stories every time the clubs say goodbye to their best players for a week or ten days. With the club scene we get to see games with players who play together all the time, take pride in their performance (mostly) and have some sense of team morale and rhythm to their game. International teams are strange to watch as they should really be the best eleven players (fitness permitting) the country has to offer. And yet watching Ireland struggle to a win over San Marino or England playing….anyone, you realise that these teams will always be bound by differences. It must be hard playing alongside players you can’t stand. Should we really believe that Gerrard and Gary Neville relish each other’s company? Do the Chelsea and Liverpool lads suddenly realise that they could potentially be best friends if only they weren’t training every single day to beat them on the football pitch?

Still, being thankful for small mercies, at least we’ve got to the important stages of the groups, where results really matter and we can see who the potential Euro 2008 competitors will be. Of the British and Irish teams, only Wales can rule themselves out of the running for qualification, and this is another reason to be cheerful. While England have qualified for all the recent major tournaments, the others have been struggling of late, with the Republic of Ireland having failed to qualify for the last two major tournaments following a promising campaign in 2002.

Group B: Scotland: Scotland are in a decent position given that they have World Cup 2006 Final participants France and Italy in their group. Having pulled off a shock 1-0 win over France earlier in qualifying, Scotland know that they have to repeat that performance against one of the two footballing giants in order to at least gain a play-off spot. While the chances of qualifying are slim, victory over Lithuania on Saturday will help as Italy and France square off this Saturday, while Italy travel to Ukraine in another tricky trip on the same Wednesday that Scotland travel to France. Four points from the two games will leave the Scotland camp hoping that they can get back onto Europe’s biggest stage.

Group D: Ireland: The Republic of Ireland face two tricky trips to Eastern Europe, starting with Slovakia on Saturday. After some poor performances in the earlier stages of qualifying, the Irish media were calling for Steve Staunton’s head. Now, on the back of a 4-0 win over Denmark in a friendly last month, plus wins in tricky games against Slovakia and Wales in their last two group games, Ireland are beginning to show signs of pulling together at the right time. Slovakia have left out some experienced players for the Ireland game and Ireland will know they need to take the maximum points from that game before a harder test in the shape of the Czech Republic on Wednesday. The Czechs aren’t the team they were though, and were indeed fortunate to salvage a point from their trip to Ireland earlier in the group. That night, the Czechs were second best to an Ireland team under new management. Next Wednesday, Ireland will hope to take a major step towards Euro 2008, six points from the two games will have to be the aim with Germany six points ahead and the other three teams battling for the play-off place.

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