A gap in the fixture lists of the club scene can only mean one thing for football punters: the discoveries and delights of international week. And Offside Sports Photography were out in force, as ever, to capture the best sights to reach the British Isles during this break from the Premier League and other domestic competitions.
First up was Argentina vs. Croatia at Upton Park: a much hyped showcase of a friendly that was designed to bring such starry names as Lionel Messi and Luka Modric to East London. The action was shot by Marc Atkins and Mark Leech.
However, the Real Madrid midfielder and former Tottenham Hotspur playmaker never made it onto the field, with a team of second-string players and exciting youngsters instead opposing Messi and his fellow World Cup runners-up.
Instead, it was Inter Milan’s Mateo Kovacic who caught the eye amongst the Croatian ranks with a number of brilliant forward balls to almost undo Argentina’s defence on a number of occasions.
His powers of invention played their part in creating the opener too, which was scored by midfielder Anas Sharbini after just 11 minutes.
It was a bright start for Croatia, who looked the more threatening side early on, thanks in part to Argentina’s determination to rush forward in numbers while their opponents stood firm and looked to counter.
And that first ball out of transition so often came from Kovacic. His numerous flicks, touches, headers, turns and slick moments of hold-up play and dribbling lit up the first half before his substitution at half-time.
In his place, on came Alen Halilovic, Barcelona’s new, diminutive wonder kid, signed in the summer from Dinamo Zagreb.
Yet Croatia’s lead didn’t last long in the second half. Cristian Ansaldi scored the equaliser that always looked likely to come on the 49 minute mark, with his ranged shot deflecting wildly off to back of Sergio Aguero and into the net.
It was a lucky strike, but Aguero’s involvement was perhaps fitting with the Manchester City forward having looked like one of Argentina’s brightest sparks in the first half. His combination with Messi dazzled at times even if it wasn’t as dangerous as expected.
An earlier effort by the striker from 40-odd yards however forced a similarly spectacular save from Lovre Kalinic, who had to dive high and wide to keep it out of the far top corner of his goal.
On the 56th minute mark, the attacker and his rival keeper came together at close quarters, with Kalinic bringing down Aguero in the box to hand Messi the match-winning penalty.
That would be one of the City striker’s last contributions, as he was replaced by West Ham’s homecoming hero, Carlos Tevez, after 62 minutes.
Upton Park was clearly delighted with his presence on the pitch, and cheered almost every move, run and touch he made. The locals and their celebrations of the Juventus man were further amplified by the Argentina fans, for whom Tevez is a cult hero, and more popular than Messi in the eyes of many.
After missing out on the 2014 World Cup squad due to being eyed as a disruptive influence by Tata Martino’s predecessors in the Argentina dug out, it appears that the fan favourite is back in the fold.
Marc was busy again just a couple of nights later on the other side of London, with Colombia at Fulham’s Craven Cottage to face Jurgen Klinsmann’s USA.
Hopes were high for the USMNT after their strong showing in the World Cup, but given the performance of Jose Pekerman’s own side in Brazil during the summer, expectations may have been a touch optimistic.
Yet the US were the first team to take the lead through Jozy Alitdore. While Premier League fans may not rate the Sunderland striker, has been a key player for his country for a number of years now.
His goal came from the spot after Pablo Armero handled in the area to grant the USA a penalty. With just nine minutes played, the North Americans were 1-0 up.
Carlos Bacca went close to an equaliser just after the half an hour mark, but hit the post rather than the back of the net. And it wasn’t Los Cafeteros‘ last chance of the game.
Brad Guzan was a busy man throughout the game, although he escaped to the half-time whistle with his team’s lead intact. Colombia had to wait for their breakthrough.
It was Bacca who finally found the leveller after the hour mark, with World Cup golden boot winner James Rodriguez playing the role of provider for his countryman.
Teofilo Gutierrez needed a little more time to find the winner, smashing home a header on the 87 minute mark to claim the result in the name of Colombia.
Not the night that team USA and their fans had hope for at Craven Cottage.
Offside’s first competitive fixture of the week saw Simon Stacpoole take the trip up to Glasgow for Scotland’s European Championship Group D qualifier clash with the Republic of Ireland.
With Hampden Park still out of action while work takes place to restore the home of Scottish football after its transformation into an athletics venue for the Commonwealth Games, Ireland boss Martin O’Neil returned to his old stomping ground at Celtic Park.
Given the context of a surprisingly open race for qualification within their group, and the intense media build up to the fixture, it was a full-blooded showdown from the off.
Passion, power, commitment and all the other usual tropes of a good, honest dust up between two regional rivals were on show as tackles took precedent over technical football, at least in the early stages.
The Irish appeared to benefit from the combative nature of the game, managing a few shots from midfield in the first half.
However, once the Scots were able to compose themselves and calm the pace slightly, Gordon Strachan’s demands for a focus on possession and individual skill from his individual players told.
Steven Naismith, Shaun Maloney and Charlie Mulgrew all combined well to put David Forde under pressure with their approach play and movement.
Yet come the second half, the score line remained stuck at 0-0, with the likes of Steven Fletcher failing to make chances pay.
It took the home side until the 74th minute to find the winning goal, with Maloney firing a brilliant shot through the box off a Scott Brown back heel; a moment worthy of winning most games.
Scotland weren’t out of the woods however, with their narrow lead almost wrecked by a header from their own central defender, Grant Hanley, which crashed upon the crossbar.
Come the final whistle, Strachan’s victorious team found themselves level on points with Ireland and their fellow qualification rivals Germany, behind leaders Poland.
The follow evening in Group E, England hosted Slovenia at Wembley, with Simon Stacpoole and Marc Atkins again Offside’s men on the sidelines.
Captain Wayne Rooney led the way as the first name on Roy Hodgson’s team sheet, collecting his 100th cap for his country; a milestone that didn’t go unnoticed in the stands or in the media.
He was even presented with a golden cap by Sir Bobby Charlton before kick-off.
Slovenia were tipped by some to spring a surprise upon their hosts, and for the first 45 minutes they looked like they might have the measure of the Three Lions.
Half-time couldn’t come soon enough, with the Wembley turf cut up from the recent NFL game staged at the venue, and England struggling to get into gear.
Things took a turn for the worse early in the second half as Jordan Henderson put the ball into his own net after 57 minutes. Joe Hart looked completely beaten by his team mates accidentally brilliant header from a Milivoje Novakovic free kick.
England’s new centurion soon stepped up to the plate to negate the deficit, with Slovenia’s lead cut after just two minutes from a Rooney penalty kick that he had won himself.
The Manchester United forward’s former club mate, Danny Welbeck, then popped up to add the winner and some sparkle to the contest, with two goals.
His first was a scuffed shot that evaded Samir Handanovic to hand England their first lead of the game. The Arsenal striker’s second was a far more accomplished effort.
After playing a one-two with Raheem Sterling, Welbeck slipped the ball home to make it 3-1 to England.
With four games played, Hodgson’s side finished the game at the top of Group E, with 12 points, six ahead of their beaten foes and closest qualification rivals.
Now to Group B where Belgium faced Wales at the King Baudouin Stadium in Belgium, where Marc Atkins was waiting with his camera.
Gareth Bale was the obvious, main attraction for the assembled shooters, but it’s a testament to the exciting quality of the current generations of players from these two nations that he wasn’t the only individual worthy of some attention.
In a match packed with Premier League stars, Thibaut Courtois, Toby Alderwiereld, Jan Vertonghen, Marouane Fellaini, Nacer Chadli, Eden Hazard and Christian Benteke; and Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey all played a part over the course of the game.
Other names that were once familiar, or are soon to become better known on these shores, also featured, such as Kevin De Bruyne and Divock Origi.
It was, forgive the cliché, a game of two halves, with Belgium dominating the first half and regularly testing Wayne Hennessey before Wales grew into the match after the break, with Bale leading the charge.
Neither team were able to break the deadlock however, and Chris Coleman will likely have left Belgium delighted at having snatched a draw against a team who were tipped to be dark horses for the World Cup in the summer.
On the same night, Italy faced Croatia in Group H. IPP covered the action at the San Siro in Milan.
While the match ebbed and flowed between the two nations to a final score of 1-1, the action off the field was far more fiery.
UEFA are now set to investigate the behaviour of fans at the stadium, with sections of the support literally flaring up in the stands.
Both goals came within the first 20 minutes, with Antonio Candreva’s opener soon cancelled out by Ivan Perisic, with attention later in the game shifting to the intervention of Italian police.
The result left both nations tied on 10 points at the top of Group H.
With competitive matters settled, the fixture list turned friendly once more, as Argentina and Portugal landed in Manchester for a big name clash between Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo at Old Trafford.
Marc Atkins was the man charged with capturing these two super stars in their natural habitat: neck-and-neck competition with one and other.
Those who paid big to enjoy a super-powered spectacle may have left the Theatre Of Dreams deflated however.
Neither star lasted more than 45 minutes on the field, with both national managers deciding to withdraw Messi and Ronaldo at the break.
Was it pressure from Real and Barcelona over playing time and injury risks that caused the two coaches to cave in, or did they merely fancy the idea of testing other faces within their squad? Who knows.
If it was the former, then Carlo Ancelotti and Luis Enrique will now be feeling very satisfied with the fact that their requests were honoured, with Louis van Gaal now facing up to losing Angel Di Maria for a period of time after he broke down.
United’s on-loan Portuguese trickster, Nani, was the culprit behind the challenge that downed the club’s new record signing, with the Argentinian’s downing coming shortly after news of a nasty injury to Daley Blind while on international duty.
Without the glamour of Messi and Ronaldo, regardless of how wise their disappearing acts may have been, the clash failed to ignite and provide the brilliance fans had paid to see.
It was eventually settled by substitute Raphael Guerreiro, who latched on the end of a low delivery from Ricardo Quaresma on the right flank to stoop, dive and head home the winner. It finished 1-0.
The last game of Simon Stacpoole’s week came in Scotland, and back up at Celtic Park where England travelled to play the Auld Enemy on their own home turf.
Prior to kick off, fans paid their respects to Nathan McSeveney, who died after falling at the stadium on the night of the previous match against the Republic of Ireland. A minute’s applause was also observed before the action got under way.
Strangely, though the atmosphere from the fans was even more aggressive than the Ireland match, Scotland appeared unable to lift themselves in front of their fans against the English.
And to their credit, Hodgson’s side enjoyed a far more productive and positive first half than the opening 45 minutes that they suffered through against Slovenia.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain opened the scoring after 32 minutes, getting on the end of a clever pass by Jack Wilshere to send his fellow Arsenal man in on goal. Scotland 0-1 England.
A second goal came soon after the start of the second half, this time through captain Rooney who overtook Jimmy Greaves to become England’s third highest ever goalscorer on 45 goals.
The United forward made the most of his recent return to the main striker role for his country by capping off another well-worked move by Wilshere.
His 46th goal wasn’t long behind either, but first Scotland had to get themselves on the score sheet through Andrew Robertson, who pulled one back on the 83 minute mark.
Rooney responded in a flash to this glimpse of a potential Scottish resurgence to steam up to the other end of the field to grab his second of the game and England’s third.
In the end, it felt like a routine win, won through a routine performance against a Scotland team that failed to show off their strengths.
With another batch of international fixtures over and done with, now it’s time to look forward to the return of the club competitions, and the Premier League this weekend.
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