International football returns this month with plenty at stake across the globe from World Cup qualifying in Europe to friendlies for the USMNT as they look to build towards this summer's CONCACAF Nations League and Gold Cup. Here are five players to keep an eye out for:
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
The superstar is on the hunt for another record and this one would certainly rank among the most significant of his garlanded career. After 170 appearances for the Portuguese national team Ronaldo has 102 goals to his name. Eight more and he will break the men's international record set by Ali Daei for Iran between 1993 and 2006. Even a player as accomplished as Ronaldo might struggle to overhaul Christine Sinclair, the all-time leading scorer with 186 goals for Canada since 2000.
It is surely a matter of when not if he takes the men's mark and it does not seem beyond the realms of possibility that a player who has so routinely found the net for club and country might even sit atop the pantheon of international scorers before the end of the summer.
The next few months might be a prime period for Ronaldo to add to his numbers; it has been some time indeed since he has had a supply line on international level as in form as Bruno Fernandes, Diogo Jota, Bernardo Silva and Joao Felix.
Portugal's three World Cup qualifiers over the next few days should provide him with plenty of chances to burnish that figure with a home game against Azerbaijan followed by trips to Serbia and Luxembourg, the latter not the whipping boys they once were but still a team against whom he has five goals already.
That has been how Ronaldo has reached his international century: beating up on minnows. He has played 15 games against the big five of European football – Germany, France, Italy, England and Spain – and has scored in only one of them, a hat-trick against Spain in the 2018 World Cup. He has scored five or more against Andorra, Armenia, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg and Sweden.
Top scorers in men's international football
|Name||Country||Years active||International caps||International goals|
|Majed Abdullah||Saudi Arabia||1978-1994||117||72|
When the Juventus striker takes the mark for himself it will be some time before anyone betters him. Lionel Messi is some way behind on 71, Robert Lewandowski even further back on 63. Ronaldo's nearest active rival is Sunil Chhetri of India, 36 years of age and with 30 goals to make up.
If there is one player who the Juventus forward should be looking over his shoulder at it might be the UAE's Ali Mabkhout, 30, who has scored 65 in 85 for his nation and might have the time to catch whatever mark Ronaldo eventually sets. Still you suspect it will be some time indeed before anyone catches up with this remarkable goal scorer.
Daryl Dike (USA)
When Dike made the switch from Florida to Yorkshire on deadline day in February it elicited little more than a shrug on the eastern side of the Atlantic. At the time, Barnsley were resolutely stuck in midtable in the Championship and for all that the Tykes were "ecstatic" to secure the 20-year-old's services it seemed unlikely that his signing would have a material impact on English football's second tier.
Quite the opposite has come to pass. Dike is certainly not the only factor behind Barnsley's rise to fifth in the Championship table but his arrival certainly coincided with a stunning improvement in form at Oakwell. Before the US international's arrival his club were winless in the league in 2021. In the ten Championship matches following since he showed up, Valerien Ismael's side won nine and drew one, even a defeat to Sheffield Wednesday before the international break was not enough to take them out of the play-offs places in the race for Premier League promotion.
Dike has played a sizeable part with five goals in 11 games and it would appear that many in the game do not think this is just a hot streak. The young forward is said to have attracted interest from top Premier League clubs though Orlando City head coach Oscar Pareja says it would take "something extraordinary" to keep him from returning to MLS. But then that is just what Dike has been producing with Barnsley of late, keep it up in USMNT's friendlies and he may have more admiring eyes coming his way.
Reece James (England)
Amid all the hand-wringing over the absence of Trent Alexander-Arnold, it has perhaps flown under the radar how excellent the alternatives Gareth Southgate has to choose from in one position are. He could quite easily name an entire XI of right-backs who have performed impressively this season (all we're saying is watch this space on that one).
Alexander-Arnold might have started this season as the best of the lot but James is making a case for at the very least a lengthy rivalry between these two at international level. If there is no such thing as a guaranteed starter outside of the back three under Thomas Tuchel so far James is at least establishing himself as a regular figure, featuring in every league match since the German's arrival on the sidelines and playing the full 90 minutes in last week's 2-0 win over Atletico Madrid.
The Chelsea defender offers plenty of qualities on the front foot and in the Premier League this season he ranks third among right-backs with five or more appearances in terms of chances created per 90 minutes, albeit with his Liverpool counterpart leading the way.
Similarly it is an Alexander-Arnold, James one-two for expected assists per 90 among right-backs this season and both are in the top 10 for pass completed, assists and passes in the attacking third.
What makes James stand out over Alexander-Arnold is his defensive work, one facet where the Liverpool player has been notable for the wrong reasons at times this season even if he leads his position in recoveries. James stands second among players in his position this season for aerial duels won and is in the top 20 for tackle success, clearances and shots blocked.
That solidity might be crucial to Gareth Southgate, who has yet to see the best of Alexander-Arnold in an England shirt. The reason for that might be simple For Jurgen Klopp the right-back plays a role that cannot be quickly translated to the international stage with its limited time to instill detailed tactical plans. That is not just the case at international level, with his club side Alexander-Arnold has had awkward moments adapting to life without Joe Gomez, Virgil van Dijk and Jordan Henderson around him.
If James can prove himself to be more plug and play there may be a spot in Southgate's Euros squad available to him.
At Barcelona Pedri has a clearly defined role: get the ball to Lionel Messi where he wants it. That might seem like damning one of world football's brightest young stars with faint praise but it shouldn't. If you have the best player on the planet on your roster there are few more valuable additions to the team than someone who can give him the ball where he wants it.
That is true of Pedri, who has two La Liga assists for Messi and one for his other Barcelona team-mates. Similarly over a third of the 34 chances he has created have been for his No.10 whilst only Jordi Alba has received more passes.
"When I was next to him I was very shocked to see him," Pedri said of Messi last week. "Playing with Messi is easy because when you give it to him you know things are going to happen."
He of course has the quality to facilitate those things for other players and for La Furia Roja he will not have to play such a crucial midfield role with the likes of Thiago and Koke available to Luis Enrique, who praised Pedri's "tranquility" on the pitch when he handed the Barcelona youngster a first call up.
Even if Pedri does not have to take the reigns right away that time could be coming as Spain continues its labored move away from its golden generation of a decade ago in much the same fashion Barcelona are. The likes of Ansu Fati and Eric Garcia could be regulars on the international stage for years to come much as they might at the Camp Nou. How Pedri fits into a different role on international duty could offer an intriguing insight into what is to come over the next few years with club and country.
Joachim Low (Germany)
Perhaps the most intriguing figure in the upcoming international break, there are so many angles to the beginning of the end of Low's Germany tenure. Will he be liberated from the constant talk about his future, able to put the humiliation of the 6-0 defeat to Spain in November behind him? With one last tournament to come before the 2014 world champion rides off into the sunset will he be tempted to get the old band back together or will he double down on his promised rebuild of that great side?
Certainly the initial indications are that this is a team for whoever succeeds Low. Thomas Muller remains in international exile despite a record of 10 goals and 14 assists in 24 Bundesliga games this season. Instead his young Bayern Munich team-mate Jamal Musiala, 18, gets his first call up having declared for Germany over England and he is not even the youngest member of a squad that includes 17-year-old Bayer Leverkusen winger Florian Wirtz. Their manager is "certain that we will have a lot of highs with them over the next few years."
A focus on the future may yet come back to haunt Low at his final tournament, this summer's European Championships, but equally the manager whose fearless young side delighted world football at the 2010 World Cup may just be going back to a blueprint he knows has led Die Mannschaft to success, even if he won't necessarily be in the dugout to witness it.