International Break – World Cup Qualifying

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By Stuart Thomson

International breaks suck. Well, for fantasy soccer fans they suck. A week without checking your team, thinking about how to get the upper hand on your opponents, or celebrating events in games that otherwise you would have no reason to really be interested in. There’s the chance that one of your star players gets injured in a semi-meaningless game. Worse still, the player who’s blanked for your fantasy side for 3 games straight could decide it’s finally time to hit a bit of form and score 5 in a single game—I’m looking at you, Steven Fletcher. Just kidding, I would never have Steven Fletcher in my fantasy team. Even if you like to gamble, there’s almost no value to be had as the likes of Germany and Spain get priced about 1/9 against some minnows, while a bold 10-team accumulator is always bound to have at least one upset in it. For me, I have the added issue of being Scottish and getting to watch my team promise so much yet deliver little but angst and disappointment. So yeah, international breaks suck.

Despite all this, it’s still a good idea to keep an eye on the fixtures for upturns in form and hope that the opportunity to play for their country rejuvenates players and brings them back to the serious business of Fantasy Premier League fresh and confident.

Here, I’ll focus on a few key fixtures and players that I’m interested in for fantasy purposes. I’ll also be concentrating on the European qualifiers; my main hope for the South American fixtures is just that the likes of Sanchez and Aguero come back fit.

Scotland vs. Slovenia

That’s right, we’ll start with the big one. Not the most glamorous fixture over the weekend, but—aside from being Scottish—an opportunity for Robert Snodgrass to get back on track.
For the first half of this season, Snoddy was in outstanding form for Hull, enough to make West Ham shell out more than £10m for his services in an attempt to replace Dimitri Payet. Since joining the Hammers though, he’s not quite hit his top form and although he’s only had a few games to justify his price tag, it may be difficult for him to replicate his form for Hull. Where previously he was the lynchpin—controlling and orchestrating almost everything Hull did—he’s now surrounded by more talent and more competition for set pieces.

After a miserable start from Scotland this qualifying campaign, they’ll be relying on Snodgrass to play a key role—as he so often does for Scotland. This responsibility—and hopefully a positive result on Sunday(!)—could be the thing to help him regain his previous form.

Spain vs. Israel / Belgium vs. Greece

I’ve rolled these two fixtures into one section as they both serve the same purpose for me. Eden Hazard is injured and likely to miss a game or two for Chelsea; both of these fixtures contain possible alternatives to Hazard in a similar price range.

Firstly, Hazard’s club teammate Pedro has been recalled to the Spanish squad after a decent run of form for Chelsea. Whether or not he starts against Israel is another matter, but he’s always a threat when selected and should see a more pivotal role for Chelsea if Hazard is out for a longer period of time.

Alongside Pedro for Spain is David Silva of Man City. Silva hasn’t been his usual productive self from a fantasy perspective this season, with only 2 goals and half a dozen assists so far. His performances though have still been impressive and a decent performance could propel him back into fantasy relevance.

Finally, Silva’s club teammate and Hazard’s compatriot, Kevin De Bruyne will line up against Greece. Already a standout for Belgium, De Bruyne will likely become even more central to any Belgium success in Hazard’s absence. So far this season, De Bruyne has notched up 13 assists in the Premier League. Add Lukaku to the mix and De Bruyne should see his creativity continue and thrive through the international fixtures. Greece won’t be an easy fixture with 3 wins from 4 in Group H but Belgium will look to continue their 100% record and I would expect them to win comfortably.

Montenegro vs. Poland

Another fixture that might not sound like the biggest game, but sees first play second in Group E. For me this game is about the fortunes of one player. No, not Poland’s soon-to-be all-time top goalscorer, Robert Lewandowski. We all know what he can do…score loads of goals and be generally one of the best strikers in Europe. No, I’ll be looking out for the man dubbed the “Polish Messi”, Kamil Grosicki. Grosicki scored 5 goals in Poland’s qualifying campaign for Euro 2016, enough to earn him selection into my fantasy team for the Euros last summer. Cue my delight when Hull signed Grosicki to replace Snodgrass in the winter transfer window. Coming in as a budget option in FPL, Grosicki has a low enough ownership that he can be a good differential if he can play to his potential.

England vs. Lithuania

Last but not least, England face Lithuania at Wembley in what should be an easy home win. No disrespect to Lithuania, who currently sit above my own Scotland in Group F, but it’s qualifying. England are pretty good in qualifying. It’s not until the major tournaments that the pressure becomes too much and the team capitulates. Anyway, England’s first choice striker, Harry Kane, will be missing through injury, leaving Jamie Vardy to lead the line in front of a talented midfield. Last season’s Premier League darling, Vardy is finally scoring again since Ranieri’s departure from Leicester, netting 4 times in his last 5 club fixtures. Vardy started in England’s friendly with Germany on Wednesday, but had no luck against a thrifty German defense that is yet to concede in this qualifying campaign. Expect the Lithuanian defense to be more forgiving and for Vardy to continue his renewed club form.

I’ve only touched on a few fixtures here and there will definitely be some great games this weekend. What’s more, the ties are spread out across Friday, Saturday and Sunday, giving us 3 nights of international football…excellent planning by FIFA and a good opportunity for international breaks to prove me wrong by not sucking. Regardless, next week the international break will be over, Scotland will be further adrift in qualifying, and the Premier League will resume letting us get back to normal business.

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