Euro 2020 qualifying resumes on Thursday with several of the biggest teams such as world champions France sporting a changed look for the new season, in some cases not by choice.
Less than a month into the new European season, France have been particularly hard hit by injuries ahead of home matches against Albania on Saturday and Andorra next Tuesday in Group H.
They will be without four members of their 2018 World Cup-winning squad – Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante, Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele – as well as emerging stars Aymeric Laporte and Tanguy Ndombele.
Coach Didier Deschamps blamed football’s “crazy schedules”, saying he always expects to lose players, but this was exceptional.
“At one time it is one of them, at another time it is another,” Deschamps said, before adding: “Now I’m not hiding from you that I have a lot of them at the same time and I could have done without that.”
While Group H is one of the tightest, with France, Turkey and Iceland level at the top in the pursuit of one of two qualifying berths, Deschamps faces Albania and then Andorra at home. The real test will come in October when France travel to Iceland and then host Turkey, who beat Les Bleus 2-0 in Konya in June.
The heavyweight clash in this batch of games pits Germany against the Netherlands in Hamburg on Friday in Group C.
It will be the third meeting of the old rivals in less than a year.
The Dutch thrashed the Germans 3-0 in the Nations League in Amsterdam last October, with Virgil van Dijk scoring once. In Schalke in November, the Liverpool defender’s 90th minute equaliser put the Dutch through to the finals of that competition in Portugal.
Back in Amsterdam in March, Germany won a Euro qualifying match 3-2, with a 90th minute goal.
This time Germany will be without Leroy Sane, who scored in the last two encounters.
Yet absences create opportunities.
“There’s a space free in attack now because of Leroy Sane’s unfortunate injury,” said Timo Werner, a scorer against the Dutch last November.
The 1.93 metre (6ft 3ins) Van Dijk, recently voted European male player of the year, looms large.
“If I stand next to him, it gets dark pretty quickly,” said Werner, who is 1.80m.
Victory would put Germany, who have won all three of their games, nine points clear of the Dutch. But there is another perfect team in the group. Surprising Northern Ireland, who have won all four of their games, host Germany in Belfast on Monday.
Most teams will pass the halfway point in their schedules over the next week. Poland, Belgium, Italy and Spain, all in six-nation groups, are also perfect after four matches. England, in a five-team group, have won the two games they have played.
For Spain, the change is at coach, with Roberto Moreno, a career assistant, confirmed as head coach. He took over on an interim basis when Luis Enrique quit in March because his daughter Xana was ill. She died, aged nine, last week.
Spain, another team to have won all four games, take on Romania in Bucharest in Group F on Thursday. Moreno said he was worried his players “might think we think we are superior.”
England also have a perfect record after four games and are at home to Bulgaria on Saturday and minnows Kosovo on Tuesday with coach Gareth Southgate focused on building squad depth.
“We have got a depth of talent now because we have approached it slightly differently to look at younger players,” said Southgate, after adding youngsters James Maddison, Mason Mount and Aaron Wan-Bissaka to his squad.
“We can’t stand still and there are young players coming through,” Southgate said. “We need to start integrating them.”
Southgate’s plans hit an injury bump on Tuesday when Manchester United defender Wan-Bissaka had to drop out. AFP