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Four talking points ahead of Thursday’s internationals

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Four talking points ahead of Thursday’s international football, featuring Sweden’s formidable frontline and Cristiano Ronaldo’s role with Portugal.

Russia face European opponents for first time since ban

The Russian national team will face Serbia in a friendly fixture on Thursday evening, the first meeting with European opponents since the nation’s ban from FIFA and UEFA competitions in February 2022.

The suspension – brought in as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – only applies to competitive games and Valery Karpin’s side has played a number of friendly fixtures across the last two years. However, finding European opponents willing to face Russia has proven difficult given the conflict in Ukraine – until now.

Serbia – who will take on England in Group C at this summer’s European Championship – will continue their preparations for the tournament with a friendly fixture against the Russians at Dynamo Moscow’s VTB Arena. Russia will also face Paraguay at the venue on March 25.

Sweden frontline offers encouragement for future

Sweden are in the process of rebuilding after failing to qualify for Euro 2024, finishing a distant third behind Belgium and Austria in a limp qualification phase. It’s the second successive major tournament the Swedes have missed out on and change has been made, with former Denmark international Jon Dahl Tomasson replacing the long-serving Janne Andersson as head coach.

Sweden take on Portugal on Thursday evening, as preparations begin for their 2026 World Cup qualification campaign. The next World Cup will be co-hosted in the United States, with Sweden having reached the semi-finals of the last finals held Stateside, in 1994. The Scandinavians have failed to progress past the quarter-finals of a major tournament since, but an exciting forward line offers encouragement for the future.

Dejan Kulusevski and Alexander Isak are proven performers at the top level, with each capable of stepping up another level. Isak in particular has admirers among Europe’s elite and a unique profile.

The trump card, however, might be Viktor Gyokeres. Though the 25-year-old has had a modest start to his international career with five goals from 19 caps, he is among the most coveted centre-forwards in Europe right now. He has 50 goals and assists in 39 appearances for Sporting Lisbon this season, with sides including Arsenal and Chelsea considering activating his €100m (£85m).

1️⃣, 2️⃣, 3️⃣ foi a conta que o Viktor fez 🤩

Revê o Hat-trick de @viktor_gyokeres na remontada Leonina ⚽️⚽️⚽️ pic.twitter.com/AL6AGzqTob

— Sporting CP (@SportingCP) March 18, 2024

It’s hard to think of a nation outside the elite with such capable attacking options and Sweden must build around the talented trio moving forward.

Are Joao Cancelo comments right?

Joao Cancelo made headlines this week with his comments on Portugal talisman Cristiano Ronaldo, insisting the Portuguese can not be reliant on their ageing record scorer.

“He is an important player and spent 15 years competing with Messi for the Ballon d’Or, but the peak of a footballer’s career is between the ages of 25 and 32,” Cancelo told the Portuguese network RTP.

“He is an important player for us, but the national team does not depend entirely on him.”

👀 João Cancelo has claimed that Cristiano Ronaldo is ‘past his peak’, and that Portugal do not rely on him.

🗣️ “He is an important player and spent 15 years competing with Messi for the Ballon d’Or, but the peak of a footballer’s career is between the ages of 25 and 32. He is… pic.twitter.com/KoSrs9FeYZ

— OneFootball (@OneFootball) March 20, 2024

Outside of favourites France and England, Portugal boasts perhaps the deepest squad in the tournament, though the 39-year-old Ronaldo is expected to feature prominently.

The record goalscorer in international football and European Championship history, Ronaldo has continued to fire with regularity in a Portugal shirt. He scored 10 goals in qualification for Euro 2024, more than Kylian Mbappe and Harry Kane, and has netted 50 times in 58 appearances since leaving Manchester United for the Saudi Pro League.

Bruno Fernandes, Goncalo Ramos, Joao Felix, Bernardo Silva, and Rafael Leao are all options in a front three for Portugal, but Roberto Martinez is unlikely to go without the five-time Ballon d’Or winner.

European champions Italy underdogs for summer repeat

Italy will enter this summer’s European Championship as holders, though few are backing the Azzurri to repeat their success of three years ago. An unconvincing qualification campaign saw the Italians sneak through and included home and away defeats to England.

Euro 2020-winning coach Roberto Mancini has moved on, with Luciano Spalletti – who led Napoli to a drought-breaking Scudetto last season – now in charge. Much of the old guard has been moved on or retired, including stalwarts Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini – with a fresh feel to the current side.

Centre-back Alessandro Buongiorno is in the latest squad after an outstanding season at Torino, while there’s a first call-up for 6ft 7in striker Lorenzo Lucca after eight league goals for Udinese this season.

𝑮𝒆𝒕𝒕𝒊𝒏’ 𝒓𝒆𝒂𝒅𝒚 in the Florida sun 👊🌞 @Azzurri_En pic.twitter.com/3AXjS2msMy

— Lega Serie A (@SerieA_EN) March 21, 2024

Goals are in short supply in the current squad, with Nicolo Barella the top-scoring member of the current Azzurri set-up with eight international goals. Argentine-born striker Mateo Retegui will hope to build on a promising start to his career with Italy after two goals in four caps.

Italy face Venezuela on Thursday before a clash with Ecuador next week.

Read – Five of the worst international kits released this month

See more – Ranking the five best left-backs in world football right now

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