Some of the world's finest teams were in action ahead of Brazil 2014, and Goal.com is here to pick out the talking points the coaches will be mulling over
A year from now, the groups for the 2014 World Cup will have been drawn and the world's finest teams will be planning their tournaments. Of course, in the meantime, there is the small matter of qualification to worry about, and Tuesday saw another busy programme of fixtures.
With all four of the semi-finalists from Euro 2012 winning, there are many lessons for national team coaches to learn as we stride ever closer to Brazil, and Goal.com's team of experts are here to share their thoughts.
|Balotelli fast becoming the answer for Italy
By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Writer
While victory over Malta should always be considered a minimum for any side harbouring serious hopes of causing a stir at the World Cup finals, Italy will be happy with having got the job done in a very professional manner in Ta' Qali.
Their 2-0 win sends them three points clear of Bulgaria with a game in hand halfway through their Group B campaign, and with Mario Balotelli continuing his spectacular recent form, there are plenty of reasons for the Azzurri faithful to have high expectations for the remainder of their 2014 campaign.
The AC Milan striker grabbed two first-half goals, either side of a Gianluigi Buffon penalty save, to ensure la Nazionale overcame a Maltese outfit who also hit the bar during a positive period in the opening period.
Balotelli is currently in the best form of his career so far, and despite still only having 19 caps to his name, his skillful link play, aerial and physical threat, and his poaching ability - not to mention his continued dead-eye record from the penalty spot - make him Italy's go-to man for all occasions.
Whether it is a major tournament semi-final against a giant like Germany or a qualifying round banana skin such as Malta, 'Super Mario' is increasingly becoming Azzurri's answer in every respect.
|Germany's lapses must be stamped out
By Enis Koylu
The match was a foregone conclusion before it had even kicked off. It would have taken a miracle, or indeed an act of stupidity for Kazakhstan to get anything from their clash with Germany in Nurnberg. And sure enough, at half-time, it was 3-0 to the hosts. Then, after the break, an absolute howler from Manuel Neuer gave the Central Asians a goal they did little to deserve.
It was all very reminiscent of Germany's failings in recent international tournaments. A lapse in concentration allowed Spain to score from a set piece in the semi-finals of the 2010 World Cup and progress to the final, and two avoidable goals on the break saw Italy beat them at the same stage at Euro 2012.
Joachim Low's side clearly haven't learned from their mistakes, and it would be a tragedy if poor focus cost them their World Cup destiny in 2014.
|Varane & Pogba ready to star for France
By Robin Bairner
Prior to the match with Georgia on Friday, Didier Deschamps argued that both Raphael Varane and Paul Pogba are players for the future, yet he offered the caveat: “The future is now.” Both youngsters justified their coach’s confidence, turning in a solid match against the world champions.
Varane was mature beyond his years in the French defence, ably assisted by Laurent Koscielny, while Pogba was a real force in the midfield, where he did not look out of place against the world’s best. A rush of blood to the head saw the Juventus man sent off, but there is no doubt that he and Varane have established themselves as international players – and not just prospects – at the very first time of asking.
|Lens ready to make the next step
By Stefan Coerts
PSV attacker Jeremain Lens recently stated that he wants to move abroad this summer and his latest performance for Oranje suggests that Lens is indeed more than ready to make the step up. The 25-year-old was involved in three of Netherlands’ four goals against Romania and caused the back four all kinds of trouble with his mazy dribbles.
Robin van Persie, Rafael van der Vaart and Arjen Robben might be the more illustrious names up front, but Lens is quickly developing into a key figure for Louis van Gaal as well.
|Portugal still lacking killer instinct
By Simon Harrison
Wastefulness was on the agenda for Portugal, despite a 2-0 victory in Azerbaijan, as the visitor's front line failed to impress in a one-sided game. Hugo Almeida did grab an easy goal, but Helder Postiga once again squandered a hatful of opportunities.
Danny and Vierinha provided creativity in the absence of the suspended Cristiano Ronaldo, as Portugal laid constant siege to Azerbaijan - but the scoreline failed to reflect their dominance. Despite Bento's men playing with increased intensity from their draw with Israel, the lack of a clinical touch was clear to see and is a problem Ronaldo & Co. will need to address if they are to secure a qualifying spot.
||Argentina exorcise La Paz demons
By Dan Edwards
The memories of that 6-1 humiliation the last time Argentina visited La Paz were all too fresh for Messi and Co, and that was reflected in a patient, cautious 5-3-1-1 formation that included eight changes from the side that breezed past Venezuela.
With that in mind, and taking into account the leg-sapping conditions in Bolivia, a 1-1 draw was more than acceptable for the away team. An unfamiliar line-up withstood the altitude, albeit with a few wobbles in defence, and Argentina continue well on track for Brazil 2014.
Indeed, only an uncharacteristic miss at the death from Messi, usually so lethal one-on-one, meant that the Albiceleste left the Bolivian capital without maximum points.
||Time to embrace the new guard
By Paddy Higgs
Fans and pundits have been calling for it, but coach Holger Osieck has so far resisted. His convictions would have been shaken, however, by the dire 2-2 draw with Oman on Tuesday. It took a late goal from Aston Villa attacker Brett Holman to rescue a point and most likely Australia's World Cup chances.
Osieck has relied largely on his experienced heads to guide the Socceroos through qualifying. But the results and performances have been poor let alone unconvincing - aside from Tim Cahill, who is still doing the business for his country at 32. But he needs help, and fast, and Osieck needs to offer some of his younger players a chance to help save Australia's World Cup hopes.