Northern Ireland v Cyprus
I can imagine there will be a fair bit of emotion in the air at Windsor Park for the final game of this Nations League block of fixtures on Sunday after the passing on Friday of iconic former manager Billy Bingham, who led the nation in two World Cup finals, and I expect that to translate into a fast start from his countrymen.
This could just be the perfect fixture for Barraclough, Cyprus are slow starters and are also pretty awful on their travels. They fell 2-0 down inside 20 minutes in Greece on Thursday and have now scored just one goal in their last 10 away games combined. They have lost 10 of their last 11 matches played off the island and shipped a whopping 28 goals in that spell.
Northern Ireland are by no means free-scoring themselves, but I suspect one should be enough for them here. They have only scored one in their last six matches in Belfast combined, however to their credit they did keep four clean sheets in that run too, including against Italy and Switzerland.
They had the better of the stalemate between these sides in Larnaca last week but were made to pay for a costly Ali McCann miss in a goalless draw. It was actually the third straight stalemate between the sides over the last 20 years, though Northern Ireland scored 11 in the previous four matches in the George Best era. Cyprus have only scored one goal ever against Northern Ireland, that was on the island 49 years ago.
This one looks like the wooden-spoon decider in the group and I fancy Northern Ireland to avoid it with a victory here.
Georgia v Bulgaria
Forget what you think you know about these two… Georgia are one of the most in-form teams in Europe with seven wins and a draw from their last eight games.
It’s been an incredible turnaround since Bulgaria trounced them 4-1 in a friendly in Sofia last September. The Georgians bounced back to win 5-2 in Bulgaria last Sunday and will look to complete the double when the Bulgars head to Tblisi infront of an intimidating crowd of more than 40,000 on Sunday afternoon.
There is a reason the Georgians are hot favourites, they have scored 12 goals in their opening three games of the group stage and conceded just those two against Bulgaria. They have won three straight at home, scoring seven goals and not conceding once – that run includes a 2-0 win over Sweden in World Cup Qualifying. Make no mistake, Georgia are a proper team and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia might only be 21 but the wide-man has netted in all three games in this block and also scored both in that win over the Swedes.
By contrast Bulgaria seem to have gone backwards since that win over Georgia nine months ago. They are winless in seven matches since edging past Northern Ireland in World Cup Qualifying last October and they have not won away from home in any competition in 21 matches, losing 12 of those games. Their last away win was their first ever Nations League game in Slovenia in September 2018 and they spurned the chance to end that run as they were pegged back in Gibraltar on Thursday night. It was the first game in charge for Georgi Ivanov after Yasen Petrov was sacked following the Georgia defeat but I can’t see the new manager bounce working here. Ivanov cannot even call on his main man in attack as Kiril Despodov is suspended after collecting two cautions. Worth also mentioning that the Bulgarian team bus was involved in a crash in the lead-up to this game. All players seem okay but mentally that can’t be ideal preparation and will likely have a negative impact on the players.
It will take an almighty turn in fortunes for both these sides for this to be anything other than a home win. Georgia’s five straight competitive wins is already a national record and I expect Wily Sagnol’s side to make that six here, and don’t bet against seeing them in the field for Euro 2024 either.
Spain v Czech Republic
League A Group 4 is one of the most intriguing of all the Nations League groups and this match in Malaga on Sunday night will likely be pivotal in deciding whether it’s Spain or Portugal who will qualify for the last-four once again.
I’m backing Spain to beat the Czechs here and take another step towards setting-up a fascinating final day winner-takes-all match-up between Portugal and Spain in Braga in September.
The Czechs are no mugs, they had a decent Euros, making it to the last eight before bowing out to Denmark, but either side of that they have won one of their last seven away games in all competitions, losing five of them. They have conceded 11 goals combined in those losses and have not scored a single goal, the last coming with a 2-0 reverse in Portugal on Thursday night. It was a 10th defeat in 16 on the road and means they have still never kept a Nations League clean sheet on their travels.
Having started the campaign with a 2-1 home win over Switzerland, the Czechs came within a whisker of a famous win against Spain in Prague last Sunday night, twice going ahead and only being pegged back by a last-gasp equaliser. However, they were undone by two quick-fire goals from Portugal in the first half which left coach Jaroslav Šilhavý frustrated and led to him ringing the changes at half-time. Despite that they were limited to just 37% possession and one shot on target in Lisbon and I expect a similar tale here, with Spain likely to dominate possession on a sweltering night on the Costa del Sol and keen to keep the pressure on their neighbours in the quest for a return to the Finals of the Nations League for the second time running.
La Roja have won five and drawn two games since losing the Nations League Final to France in Milan last October and have netted 17 times in their last six games on home soil, conceding only twice.
They haven’t exactly clicked in their opening three games of this block, with draws against Portugal in Seville and in Prague before Pablo Sarabia’s early strike ensured the points in Geneva on Thursday, however back at home I expect Martinez Luis Enrique to shuffle his pack and rest some weary legs with the likes of Rodri, Dani Olmo and Ferran Torres all hoping to come in and stake a claim for playing time with just over five months until their opening World Cup fixture in Qatar.
It might not be a classic and it might not be a thumping, but I expect Spain to do enough to win by a couple of goals and keep the destiny of the group in the balance.
Slovenia v Serbia
All seems to be going rather swimmingly in Serbian football at present. They have a World Cup to look forward to and will know they can take a giant stride towards promotion to the top flight of Nations League football by completing the double over the Slovenians here.
But for a Norwegian smash-and-grab in Belgrade on Matchday 1 the Serbians could be out of sight in the group already. They did however bounce back to thrash Slovenia 4-1 and then edge a 1-0 in Sweden on Thursday.
Talisman Aleksandr Mitrovic missed the 1-0 win in Solna after picking up bookings in their opening two matches but he’s back available and could replace Real Madrid man Luka Jovic who showed his pedigree after being promoted from the bench to get the winner in Sweden.
For their part, Slovenia have only scored twice in their last five matches combined and have won just one of their last eight, which was a 2-1 success at home against Cyprus. Their previous competitive win on home soil was a 1-0 success against Malta. They do have forward Zajc Miha back from his own suspension which saw him miss the creditable stalemate in Norway on Thursday, when they withstood enormous pressure in the second half, but even so I don’t see it sparking a return to form.
Serbia dominated their opening-day clash with Norway, only to lose to a solitary Erling Haaland goal, but that was their only defeat on home soil since October 2020 – a run of nine games. They are also unbeaten in eight competitive games on their travels, winning five of them, the last two coming in Portugal and then this week’s trip to Sweden.
With a full compliment available in attack they should have too much for their hosts and I expect then to pick up there they left off, scoring three second half goals against Slovenia a week ago.
Greece v Kosovo
This one already looks like the decider in League C Group 3 and I expect Greece to win it.
Gus Poyet’s team have a lot of momentum after registering three straight wins to begin the campaign and his competitive era in charge, following his appointment in February. They registered a 1-0 win in Belfast, overcame Kosovo by the same scoreline in Pristina and then cruised past old chums Cyprus 3-0 back on home soil on Thursday night.
Midfielder Anastasios Bakasetas has notched the opening goal in all three matches and his country have never lost in the eight matches in which he has scored. He’ll be looking to make that nine here and his cause is helped by the fact that Kosovo boss Alaine Giresse has a selection headache after they edged-past Northern Ireland 3-2 on Thursday night. The influential Valon Berisha could miss out after limping off 11 minutes from time against Northern Ireland and to make matters worse for the visitors they are without defenders Betim Fazlija and Ibrahim Drešević who are suspended after receiving their second caution of the group stage on Thursday night. Kosovo had left it late to see-off Cyprus 2-0 in Larnaca but it means they could go level on points with Greece with a win here.
Kosovo snatched a late point in Greece in World Cup Qualifying, one of two 1-1 draws between the sides in late 2021, but in truth I can’t see them repeating the trick in Volos on Sunday. Greece have suffered only one defeat in 13 matches on home soil, a 1-0 reverse to Spain in Qualifying for Qatar 2022.
Kosovo have won just three of their last 13 on their travels and kept only three clean sheets and given their absentee list, and the wave of confidence running through the Greek camp, I can only see one outcome.
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