It's international week ... wait! Come back!
Look, stick with us. It's international week, but it's also the last round of qualifying games for Euro 2016. So, these games that are about to happen? They're important. Properly important. People are going to cry tears of joy and sorrow, and footballers are going to shower praises or curses upon the heavens. Good stuff, in other words.
Who should you be watching? There's intrigue all over the continent, and only five of the France 2016's 24 places have been secured. But with due respect to Slovakia, Scotland, Estonia, Montenegro, Cyprus, Finland and Italy, these are the four teams we think you might want to keep an eye on.
When the qualification groups were drawn, Wales were ranked 51st in the world. As they come to a close, Gareth Bale and co. are sitting pretty in eighth, looking down on England, Italy, France and a whole host of other inferiors. It's been quite the turnaround.
But while you can argue with FIFA's rankings, you can't argue with cold hard results. Wales need just one point from two games this week to secure their place at Euro 2016 and make it to their first major tournament since the 1958 World Cup, a gap of 58 years. It's not quite secure yet, of course. Wales' first game is a tricky away trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina, who themselves are still in the hunt for third place in the group and its associated playoff spot. Their second game, however, is a home tie against Andorra, one of the continent's most minnowish minnows, a country that have only ever won one competitive match. A sure thing, right? You'd think so.
But this is Wales. This is the country whose bid to reach the 1978 World Cup foundered after Joe Jordan handled the ball in the Welsh penalty area and the referee awarded Scotland a penalty. Fine, you might think, were it not for the fact that Jordan was playing for Scotland. This is the country that just needed to beat Romania to make USA '94, only for Paul Bodin, with the scores level, to crash a penalty into the bar. More to the point, this is the country that needed a last-minute free-kick to make it past Andorra last year. Take nothing for granted.
Hangovers are real, kids, and hangovers are dangerous. After their surprising and occasionally thrilling run to third place at the 2014 World Cup, the Netherlands have crashed hard. Louis van Gaal's replacement, Guus Hiddink, began their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign with disastrous defeats against the Czech Republic and Iceland. He resigned in June, but his replacement, Danny Blind got off to an equally miserable start, losing at home to Iceland and then getting thumped 3-0 away in Turkey.
All of which faffing around has given Group A a peculiar look. Iceland and the Czech Republic sit in first and second and both qualify automatically (which will be Iceland's first major tournament, quite a wonderful story). Turkey sit in third, the playoff spot, and the Dutch languish two points behind them. And that 3-0 loss takes on extra significance: though the Dutch have so far outscored the Turks, the reverse fixture was a 1-1 draw, and ties are decided on head-to-head results.
Since making their first appearance at Euro 1976, the Netherlands have only failed to qualify once, in 1984 (and that was on goals scored). To make the playoffs this time, they need to score three more points than Turkey over two games. Luckily for the Dutch, Turkey have to play the two best sides in the group, Iceland and the Czech Republic. Unluckily, they also have to play the Czechs. If, that is, they can deal with Kazakhstan first. And we wouldn't necessarily bet on that: Arjen Robben, talisman and captain, is absent through injury, and plenty of other senior players are in relatively horrible form.
In short, we're set for one of two things: either a great act of qualification escapology -- always fun -- or the compelling sight of one of Europe's footballing powers embarrassing themselves in public, while thousands upon thousands of men, women and children, dressed in bright orange, hurl abuse, shake their heads or cry their hearts out.
There have been some peculiar groups in qualification this time around, and we can perhaps ascribe this to the expansion of the tournament to 24 teams and, possibly, to newfound levels of hope among smaller teams combined with a little complacency among the larger. Or it's just one of those things. Either way, Group F is arguably the weirdest of the lot.
This is the group that saw the Faroe Islands beat Greece home and away. This is the group that any one of four teams can still win. And this is the group that, coming into the final pair of games, is topped by Northern Ireland, who began the campaign ranked as the 39th-best team in UEFA.
They've a one-point advantage over Romania in second, and four points separate them from Hungary in third. Thursday night they play Greece, who are bottom of the group and without a win all campaign. Greece are under new management after the disastrous reign of Claudio Ranieri, and the last time out they came away from Romania with a nil-nil draw. A win will take the Irish through. Anything else, and they will go to Finland next Sunday needing at least a draw.
Probably the worst possible time for a selection crisis, then, but such is life. Kyle Lafferty, scorer of seven goals in eight games, is missing, and so are Chris Baird, Conor McLaughlin and Jonny Evans. Overcome all that, and it'll be a first major tournament since 1986, and first Euros since forever.
Thursday night, Albania host Serbia in a qualifying match that might be politely described as "tense," and privately described as "really, really, really, really, really tense." You may recall that the reverse fixture, last October, was a politically charged mess from start to early finish: Albanian fans were banned from the game unless they agreed to conceal their allegiance. Serbian supporters sang "Kill the Albanians" during the warmups and some home fans burned NATO flags in the stands.
The match was eventually abandoned after a drone carrying a flag on which was printed the word "AUTOCHTHONOUS" -- literally, "native to the soil" -- and a map of Greater Albania, a notional (and deeply controversial) country that incorporates various territories outside Albania's current borders, including Kosovo, which in the not too distant past fought a bloody civil war against Serbia. One of the Serbian players jumped and dragged the flag down from the drone, a couple of Albanian players ran over to remonstrate with him and a pitch invasion ensued -- during which the Albanian players were attacked by Serbian fans.
We're not recommending you watch this in anticipation of violence, though. Everybody loves an atmosphere, but it's crass to hope for blood. This game matters for qualification. Though UEFA initially awarded the game to Serbia, while simultaneously docking them points, the Court for Arbitration for Sport reversed part of the decision and awarded the game to Albania. As such, they sit in third place in the group, one point behind Denmark having played a game fewer, and already guaranteed at least a place in the playoffs. If they beat Serbia, then win away in Armenia, they'll progress automatically to their first ever major tournament. Which, given they were being chased off the pitch with chairs a year ago, would be moderately remarkable.