January's international break explained
Saturday’s game with West Ham United was Manchester United’s last for 13 days, with the first team now not in action again until the Emirates FA Cup tie with Middlesbrough on 4 February.
Football in England doesn’t usually pause at this time of year, with the 2019/20 winter break – when we went a fortnight without a game and the squad headed for a training camp in Marbella – a notable exception.
If, like United, teams remain in contention in the latter stages of the FA Cup and Champions League, the period between the November and March international breaks is usually relentless.
However, this year another international break has been slotted in and it’s because of this that the top flight has taken a breath.
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The COVID-19 pandemic caused huge disruption to fixture schedules in 2020 and 2021, with games needing to be postponed across the world.
UEFA successfully managed to rearrange its fixtures and, bar the play-offs which will take place in March, its World Cup qualification campaign has now been completed with 10 sides booking their spots at next winter’s tournament.
The other confederations still have games to catch up though and, with the group-stage draw for the Qatar finals scheduled for April, FIFA has blocked off this two-week window for some of those fixtures to be played.
WHICH UNITED PLAYERS ARE AWAY?
Only a handful, with the majority of our squad representing European nations who don’t have any fixtures until March.
Each of the 10 South American sides play twice over the next week, including already-qualified Brazil who have selected Fred and Alex Telles in their squad for games with Ecuador and Paraguay.
Two wins plus any slip-ups for Argentina – who play Chile and Colombia – will confirm the Selecao as group winners.
Further down the CONMEBOL table, two-time World Cup winners Uruguay face a fight to qualify. Edinson Cavani and Facundo Pellistri are among the players picked for crucial clashes with Paraguay and Venezuela.
Diego Alonso’s side will be hoping to claim all six points against the group’s bottom two to boost their chances. They are currently seventh, with only the top four sure to make it to Qatar.
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In Asia, Under-23s midfielder Zidane Iqbal could make his Iraq debut as the Lions of Mesopotamia face Iran and Lebanon in a pair of AFC qualifiers.
Iraq, who have only previously qualified for one World Cup in 1986, are a way off Iran and South Korea in the automatic slots but just four points separate the other four sides in the group, with the third-place finisher going through to a play-off round.
Finally, Hannibal and Eric Bailly are both still in with a chance of becoming the first United player to lift the Africa Cup of Nations while with the club.
Hannibal’s Tunisia face Burkina Faso in Saturday’s quarter-final, while Bailly and Ivory Coast are playing later today (Wednesday), against Egypt in the round of 16.
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UPCOMING INTERNATIONAL FIXTURES
WEDNESDAY 26 JANUARY
Ivory Coast v Egypt (16:00 GMT)
THURSDAY 27 JANUARY
Iran v Iraq (14:30 GMT)
Ecuador v Brazil (21:00 GMT)
Paraguay v Uruguay (23:00 GMT)
SATURDAY 29 JANUARY
Burkina Faso v Tunisia (19:00 GMT)
TUESDAY 1 FEBRUARY
Lebanon v Iraq (12:00 GMT)
Uruguay v Venezuela (23:00 GMT)
WEDNESDAY 2 FEBRUARY
Brazil v Paraguay (00:30 GMT)