x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Form indicators for the World Cup bound

We look from the midweek international games at who enhanced their credentials and who have blown their favourites tag.

Serbia, in red, and Algeria players fight for the ball.
Serbia, in red, and Algeria players fight for the ball.

Rabah Saadane, the Algeria coach, could do no wrong last year when he tactically outwitted fierce rivals Egypt in an at times brutal two-legged play-off to secure his side the last coveted place at this year's World Cup finals in South Africa.

This summer's showcase will mark the Desert Foxes' first foray on the world stage since the 1986 finals in Mexico. However, recent results have raised question marks regarding Saadane's suitability for their expedition in the continent's first staging of football's greatest prize. Algeria's 3-0 home defeat to Serbia on Wednesday night was their third straight defeat and means in the seven games since that play-off victory over Egypt, they have won just once during the regulation 90 minutes.

Fabio Capello's England team were trailing 1-0 to Egypt at Wembley when the 29-year-old Tottenham Hotspur striker Peter Crouch came off the bench at half-time on Wednesday. Thirty-five minutes later, England were leading 3-1 and Crouch had bagged a brace to maintain his prolific international goal-scoring record. The forward, who has scored just once in the Premier League for Spurs since December 19, was by no means already guaranteed a place in Capello's World Cup squad. The Italian tactician had appeared to favour either Emile Heskey or Jermain Defoe as strike partner to Wayne Rooney, but with Crouch now having netted 20 goals in 37 appearances for his country, the 6ft 7in striker is now a certainty.

After being written off less than a year ago, Diego Maradona, the Argentina coach, appeared to have no future at the helm of the Albicelestes.

Despite an astounding array of attacking talent, including Lionel Messi, the World Player of the Year, Maradona's men struggled through Concacaf qualifying, leaving it until the final group match before securing a spot in South Africa. Yet on Wednesday night, the little Argentine showed tactical nous as his side appeared rejuvenated after a long qualifying campaign, dealing defeat to three-time World Cup-winners Germany with a dominating performance that was more comfortable than the 1-0 scoreline suggests. Don't write him off: Maradona can strengthen his legendary status in the game.

Italy may be the world champions, but two of the most talented footballers plying a trade on the country's shores hail from Brazil - and they look increasingly likely to be spending their summer at home, too. AC Milan's offensive duo of Ronaldinho and Alexandre Pato were omitted from the squad for the Selecao's exhibition match with Republic of Ireland on Tuesday evening. with Dunga, the coach of the Samba Stars, saying after the 2-0 win that the two players have "had their chance and things have now been decided". The five-time World Cup-winners will hardly go to South Africa lacking an attacking threat without the Milan pair though - even their defence offers potent weapons such as Dani Alves, Maicon, Felipe Melo and Michel Bastos.

A World Cup would not be the same without Guus Hiddink's presence. The charismatic Dutchman has coached at the past three World Cups - with Holland, South Korea and Australia respectively - and is favourite to take the helm at the Ivory Coast. The Elephants are desperate to fill their managerial void after dismissing Vahid Halilhodzic following their quarter-final African Cup of Nations exit. The unorganised Africans lost 2-0 to South Korea on Wednesday, but in Hiddink, who takes the reins of Turkey in August, they will get an experienced coach who can turn talented chaos into a formidable outfit.

During Italy's World Cup triumph four years ago, the Azzuri conceded just once from open play: an own goal by Christian Zaccardo in a 1-1 group-stage draw with the United States.

Such stinginess in defence ensured they did not require an abundance of goals and the theory seems to have carried them forward as Marcello Lippi's side look to become the first country to defend the trophy since Brazil in 1962. Wednesday's 0-0 draw with Cameroon was their third consecutive clean sheet, but it also means they have scored just once in three games.

The attack-minded Real Madrid full-back Sergio Ramos said his Spain side do not like being labelled as favourites ahead of this summer's World Cup. Going into their clash with France on Wednesday night, La Furia Roja boasted a record of 41 wins from their past 44 games and they did little to diminish their tag as the best team in the world. Vicente del Bosque's side picked apart France with consummate ease to run out worthy 2-0 winners and triumph on French soil for the first time since 1968. More telling, however, was David Villa's first-half strike, which saw him increase his goal tally to 36 in 55 games. The 28-year-old Valencia striker needs nine more to better Raul's all-time record.

Along with Spain, the world's top-ranked team, the Netherlands were the only side to progress through European qualification for the World Cup without dropping a point. In eight games they conceded just twice and scored 17 times, but on Wednesday's showing in their friendly against the United States at Ajax's Amsterdam ArenA, the Oranje's juice appeared to have run dry. A Dirk Kuyt penalty and a deflected shot from Klaas-Jan Hunterlaar was enough to beat Americans 2-1, but Bert van Marwijk, the Dutch coach, will be counting on the fitness of the Arsenal striker Robin van Persie, who has not kicked a ball since suffering an ankle injury in November, to spearhead his side's attack.

Carlos Alberto Parreira, the South Africa coach, who has presided over an unbeaten team since taking over Bafana Bafana again last October, continues his quest to rebuild a side worthy of representing the World Cup's host country.

Against Namibia on Wednesday, despite conceding their first goal since the Brazilian took charge four games ago, South Africa, who left many of their high-profile names out of the match, fought back to draw 1-1. It was comfortable in the end, but a draw against the world No 111 is far from impressive and is unlikely to send out a very threatening message to the other 31 teams heading their way in three months' time. Parreira, who guided his native Brazil to World Cup success in 1994, promises the South African public that progression is in place. "A fair result should have been a win ... but everything is part of the process," said the somewhat optimistic South American coach.

Scotland won't be in South Africa this summer after George Burley's ill-fated reign in charge of the national side, but after dismissing the former Ipswich Town manager, the country's football association acted quickly to instate Craig Levein. The new manager, lured to the post from the Scottish Premier League club Dundee United last December, made his international bow on Wednesday night against Czech Republic - a side they will face in qualifying for the 2012 European Championship - and led Scotland to their first friendly win at Hampden Park since 1996. With Kris Boyd back in the squad and a new manager winning his first game in charge - only the third time since Jock Stein took over as manager in 1965 - a case of what might have been will be weighing heavily on the minds of Scotland's fanatical supporters, the Tartan Army.