The last Premier League gameweek before the first international break since Euro 2016 is underway, and there’s plenty of sub-plots looking ahead to a stint on the ever-changing global scene.
Nowhere is this more so than with England, while other home nations have differing challenges in store during World Cup 2018 qualifying.
Hart, Stones, Sterling
You’re only as good as your last tournament, so new England boss Sam Allardyce has a task on his hands.
Raheem Sterling has undoubtedly started the season well under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, but the winger consistently froze for the Three Lions at Euro 2016, and needs to hit the ground like the cheetah everyone knows he can be to try and build momentum.
Sterling and John Stones have cost City just shy of £100m combined over the past two summers. The staggering £47.5m fee for the latter should buy him a place in an England side that has lost its long-held depth at centre-half.
Is he really that good? Expect to find out something if Stones is pitted against Slovakia’s Marek Hamsik.
As for Joe Hart, a move to Sunderland might save his number one spot, but Southampton’s Fraser Forster, Burnley’s Tom Heaton and Stoke’s Jack Butland, when fit, are fighting for it like never before now.
The end of ‘Super Shaun’ Maloney for Scotland?
It’s hard to see how the former Celtic and Wigan man can make his way back into Gordon Strachan’s squad after being dropped for the trip to Malta.
Maloney is in ferocious form for faultless Hull, with an assist in the 3-1 EFL Cup victory at Exeter following up a goal and an excellent lay-off in his first appearance of the Premier League campaign, away to Swansea seven days ago.
He bagged important goals against Poland, Republic of Ireland and Gibraltar when featuring regularly in Euro 2016 qualifying, so it’s clearly the fact that Maloney turns 34 in January, with the World Cup still almost two years away, that’s keeping him out of Strachan’s thoughts.
The old-timer’s 5/1 to score for the second top-flight match in a row at home to United though, and that looks a bit big.
Wales raise the bar. Now Moldova
After the highs and eventual low of Euro 2016, where Chris Coleman’s side were knocked out at the semi-final hurdle by champions Portugal, the Dragons are slammed back down to earth with a bump at home to Moldova, currently ranked at a practically all-time low of 165th by FIFA.
Bearing that in mind, 1/4 about Wales doesn’t look a bad bet, with 12/5 about Coleman’s Dragons breaching a two-goal handicap worth a look.