Manchester United may have enjoyed a rare break from action but that didn't stop the Reds galaxy of talent from strutting their stuff across the world.
In the first international hiatus of 2021, the road to Qatar 2022 began in earnest with the start of the qualifying rounds.
Starting on these shores, and England made a 100% winning start to proceedings, with a hat-trick of wins over San Marino (5-0), Albania (2-0) and Poland (2-1). Harry Maguire scored the winner late on in the latter to preserve his side's perfect record in their toughest test so far, whilst Luke Shaw returned to the national set up for the first time since 2014 in Tirana. The United left-back earned his ninth cap and set up Harry Kane to open the scoring for the Three Lions and enhance his claim for selection in the European Championship squads. Shaw sat out the other two games as Ben Chilwell took over, whilst Maguire featured in two of the three ties having watched the San Marino mismatch from the bench. Ben Pope started in all three matches with Dean Henderson watching from the bench. Jesse Lingard, rejuvenated since his loan move from one United to another, started against San Marino and came on as a late sub against Albania and a Robert Lewandowski-less Poland as the United man bids to surprisingly force his way into Gareth Southgate's thinking for the summer.
Having played against group favourites Belgium and lost 3-1, Dan James was restored to the Wales side for their crucial qualifier against the Czechs in Cardiff. The United winger sat out the friendly win over Mexico as caretaker boss Rob Page rested his big guns for the visit of the Czech Republic. The game was heading for a goalless stalemate until James popped up with a rare header ten minute from the end to give the Principality a vital victory in a game that ended ten-a-side. It was James' fourth goal for his country and maintained his fine recent run of form.
Scott McTominay featured in all three of Scotland's games, both in midfield and at centre-half, as they picked up five points from three games against Austria (where they were twice behind), familiar foes Israel and a 4-0 thumping of minnows Faroe Islands to sit second in Group F after three rounds of ties.
Bruno Fernandes started on the bench for Portugal's opener against Azerbaijan but came off the bench in a 1-0 win, starting the draw in Serbia where he was booked - therefore forcing United's talisman to return to United a few days ahead of schedule as his nation survived a scare to overcome tiny Luxembourg 3-1 with Diogo Jota, a certain Cristiano Ronaldo and Joao Palhinha on the scoresheet.
Elsewhere, Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial featured in an unbeaten start to Les Bleus qualifying campaign, but there was potentially concerning injury news for United as the latter limped off with suspected ligament damage in the world champions 2-0 victory in Kazakhstan.
Donny van de Beek came of the bench to score for the Netherlands in Gibraltar, grabbing the sixth in a 7-0 thumping of the territorial minnows to put Frank de Boer's Oranje a point behind early pacesetters Turkey after three games.
Victor Lindelof started at the heart of the Swedish defence in Group B wins over Georgia (1-0) and then Kosovo (3-0) but pulled out of the squad to protect his back injury ahead of side's friendly fixture with Estonia (another 1-0 win). The ageless Zlatan Ibrahimovic, once of this parish, and Sweden's all time top goalscorer, started both competitive matches on his international return - five years after his initial retirement from the national side.
Unai Simon dislodged David de Gea from Spain's starting XI as the Athletic Bilbao keeper played in all three of La Roja's qualifying games leaving Dave with merely a watching brief from the bench for Luis Enrique's side as they picked up two wins and a draw to lead the way after the opening salvo in Group B.
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