International football returned from its four month of hibernation last week with the first ties of the 2022 World Cup qualifying tournament. While the first priority for Europe’s national teams was getting points on the board for Qatar, this week’s games also served as a form guide for this summer’s European Championships. Here, we rank the current form of the 24 nations who made the this summer’s football jamboree:
Finland are looking forward to their first finals appearance this summer and made a steady start to making it to Qatar. Teemu Pukki bagged a brace in a competitive 2-2 draw with Bosnia. Against Ukraine, the defensive resilience that earned Finland a passage to the Euros was again on show, but Junior Moraes’ late goal appeared to have them beat. However, Finland pushed for a last minute penalty in which Pukki dispatched to earn a surprise 1-1 draw. The week ended in a friendly loss to Finland, but fans can now start counting the days until their historic date with Denmark on June 12th.
Slovakia’s week varied from the sublime to the ridiculous. They were without Marek Hamsik and started reasonably well with 0-0 away draw with Cyprus. However, Slovakia made an abysmal start at home to group minnows Malta and found themselves two goals down. Headed goals from David Strelec and Milan Skriniar got Slovakia back on level terms, but Slovakia couldn’t force a winner and the game finished in a 2-2 draw.
On the back of those results, few fancied Slovakia’s chances at home to Russia, but Skriniar gave a commanding performance with his header giving Slovakia a first half lead and then leading a defence that kept Russia at bay for most of the game. When Russia found a way to equalize, Slovakia regained the lead within three minutes through Robert Mak’s brilliant solo goal. The win gave Slovakia some momentum to take into the summer.
Hungary’s last World Cup appearance came back in 1986 and were without Dominic Szoboszlai for their opening slate of qualifiers. However, they achieved a credible 3-3 draw with Poland, despite Attila Fiola’s red card. San Marino put up limited resistance and a game with two penalties ended in a 3-0 win for Hungary. Andorra were never likely to offer much resistance, but Hungary labored in the first half until Fiola made up for his earlier red card by nodding in his first goal for Hungary. The second half proved plain sailing as Hungary ran out 4-1 winners to move into second place in Group I.
Austria got up and running with Stuttgart striker Sasa Kalajdzic bagging his first two goals for his country in a 2-2 draw away to Scotland. They then fell behind in Vienna against Faroe Islands, but Aleksandar Dragovic’s header leveled the game after 30 minutes. Christoph Baumgartner gave Austria the lead and Kalajdzic’s goal before halftime secured a comfortable 3-1 win.
Then group favourites Denmark were the visitors in Vienna and the wheels fell off for Austria. After holding the Danes for almost an hour, they got the breakthrough and went on to hit four in a devastating 16-minute spell. Austria were missing key players, including Julian Baumgartlinger and Marko Arnautovic, but Group F already looks like a fight for second place.
20. North Macedonia
The Euro’s lowest ranked qualifiers earned their greatest result this week. Their week began by losing an entertaining opening World Cup qualifier 3-2 in Romania and it seemed Maceodonia had done enough for the draw after fighting back from two goals down only to be denied by Ianis Hagi’s late strike. The second matchday saw Macedonia hit their stride with an emphatic 5-0 win over Liechtenstein. Elis Bardi’s early free kick sent the home side on their way with Aleksandar Trajkovski’s second half double making sure of the win.
Then came a seemingly impossible away match to Germany. After withstanding early pressure, Macedonia took the lead on the stroke of halftime through striker Goran Pandev. However, when Germany leveled from the penalty spot, it looked like Macedonia’s chance had gone. With five minutes to play, a slick counter attack put Eljif Elmas clear to slot home the winner and claim national hero status.
A poor start for goalkeeper David Marshall and Scotland have left the team in an unfortunate position. Twice the Scots trailed, but John McGinn’s late bicycle kick earned them a 2-2 draw. Israel Marshall was again at fault as Scotland fell behind on the stroke of halftime. An improved second half display was rewarded with a fine strike from Ryan Fraser and Scotland secured a battling draw. Scotland finished the week on a high with McGinn’s early goal setting them on their way to a 4-0 hammering of Faroe Islands, with Che Adams capping a promising debut week with his first Scotland goal.
18. Czech Republic
A mixed week for the Czechs started with Tomas Soucek bagging a 16-minute hat-trick in a 6-2 rout of Estonia. Then came a home clash with the world’s top ranked side and the Czech’s took the lead through Lukas Provod’s stunning strike. Belgium fought back to equalize, but it was the Czech’s who carried the greater threat and were only denied a famous win by the post, an excellent save and a goal line clearance. Against Wales, the Czech’s were left to rue their profligate finishing and Patrik Schick’s needless red card as a late goal consigned them to a first defeat of the campaign.
Coach Rob Page continued to deputize for the absent Ryan Giggs as Wales began their qualifying campaign away at first-ranked Belgium. Harry Wilson finished off a fine team goal to give Wales a shocking lead, but Belgium responded quickly and Wales eventually went down to a 3-1 defeat. Wales then overcame Mexico in a friendly before what turned into a bad-tempered showdown with the Czech Republic. Wales struggled to get going in attack even after their opponents were reduced to 10 players, but just minutes after going down to 10 themselves, Gareth Bale dug out a brilliant cross for Daniel James to head home. Wales then had Joe Rodon to thank for an injury time clearance to hold out and claim their first win in qualifying.
Ukraine beat out Portugal to win their Euro qualifying group and showed similar form to gain an unexpected draw away to France. Ukraine then looked set to grab a key win over Finland, but let it slip with a late penalty. A strong start against Kazakhstan saw Roman Yaremchuk give them an early lead, but again Ukraine couldn’t hold on and conceded a second half equalizer with Andriy Shevchenko’s team guilty of failing to turn their dominance into goals. In a group that looks like a close race for second place, Ukraine will need to find a ruthless streak to qualify for the World Cup and make an impression this summer.
New coach Paulo Sosa has promised a more stylish brand of football for Poland, but a poor start to qualifying saw Robert Lewandowski needing to rescue a late point in Hungary in a thrilling 3-3 draw. Lewandowski was then on-hand with an early brace as Poland got their first win on the board with a 3-0 win over toothless San Marino.
However, Lewandowski’s much anticipated showdown with Harry Kane didn’t materialize as Poland’s record goal scorer was forced to pull out due to injury. In his absence, Poland fell behind early and looked in danger of being overrun, only to be gifted a goal when John Stones’ blunder was punished by Jakob Moder’s curling finish. However, when it seemed Poland were on the brink of a Wembley shock to match the one they managed in 1973, England found a late winner and left Poland floored.
A mixed week for Russia started with Artem Dzyuba’s opening goal in a routine 3-1 win over Malta. A tougher assignment against Slovenia saw Dzyuba bag a brace to secure a 2-1 win and took the giant striker within one goal of Aleksandr Kerzakov’s goal scoring record.
However, they then let early grip on the group slip in Slovakia. Russia dominated possession but fell behind in the first half. Their pressure eventually told and Mario Fernandes appeared to rescue a point with his 71st-minute strike, only for Russia to concede a second just three minutes later. Group H looks like being a five-horse race and Russia will need to prove more than flat track bullies to make it to Qatar.
Turkey produced the shock of the week to stun group favorites Holland, as Burak Yilmaz grabbed an early goal via deflection and then a penalty to give Turkey an early lead. Hakan Calhanoglu grabbed a spectacular third, Turkey looked in trouble when Holland reduced the arrears to 3-2, but Yilmaz’s curling free kick was enough for his hat tick and a stunning 4-2 win. Turkey carried that momentum into a clash with Norway with Ozan Tufan smashing in an early goal and Caglar Soyuncu’s header made it 2-0 at halftime. A brilliant strike from Tufan early in the second half made sure of another unexpected win.
A home tie with Latvia seemed to offer little threat, and sure enough Turkey twice opened up a two-goal lead thanks yet again to Calhanoglu and Yilmaz. A late Davis Ikaunieks goal ended the game 3-3 and Turkey had dropped two costly points. It was a strong week for Turkey, but they may end up looking back ruefully at that draw.
It was a disastrous start to qualifying for Croatia with a shocking 1-0 loss to Slovenia. Luka Modric broke Croatia’s caps record with his 135th appearance at home and he almost celebrated in style when his early volley sailed narrowly over the bar. This time, however, Croatia found the breakthrough via Mario Pasalic’s headed goal to secure a 1-0 win.
Against Malta, Croatia again made heavy weather of a routine-looking tie with the old guard of Perisic and then Modric from the spot guiding them to a 3-0 win. Croatia have a habit of making hard work of qualifying and then excelling in the finals. Coach Zlatko Dalic will be hoping his team have one last hurrah left this summer.
Sweden welcomed back a legend as Zlatan Ibramhimovic made his first appearance since Euro 2016. The game against Georgia proved underwhelming, but it was Ibrahimovic who got the assist for Viktor Claesson to bundle home the only goal of the game. In Kosovo, defender Ludwig Augustinsson got Sweden up and running with a scrappy effort before Alexander Isak’s fine finish made sure of the win to give Sweden a fresh start to qualifying. A friendly win over Estonia finished a positive week for Sweden, who will face familiar foes in Spain in both qualifying and the Euros.
Joachim Low began his long goodbye, but Germany saw a proud record come to an end. The week started well with an emphatic 3-0 win over Iceland with Kai Havertz and Leon Goretzka grabbing goals in the first seven minutes. A tricky trip to Romania got off to a flyer when Serge Gnabry slotted home an early opener. Joshua Kimmich was unlucky not to make it 2-0 when his long-range effort smashed the crossbar. However, one goal proved enough.
A home match with North Macedonia appeared to offer little threat, but this time Germany failed to turn early pressure into a goal and found themselves behind at halftime. Germany laid siege to the Macedonian goal and were eventually rewarded when IIkay Gundogan scored from the penalty spot. The winner seemed there for the taking, but Timo Werner missed a sitter. With five minutes to go, the visitors grabbed a famous winner. It was Germany’s first World Cup qualifying defeat since 2001 and Low has problems heading into his last hurrah this summer.
Switzerland’s campaign got off to a blistering start with three goals in the opening 13 minutes against Bulgaria with their front trio of Embolo, Shaqiri and Seferovic running riot in a 3-1 win. It was another quick start in Lithuania with Shaqiri celebrating his return to the side with a goal. Getting him back to full fitness is a boost to coach Vladimir Petkovic. The Swiss made it a hat trick of wins by beating Finland in a friendly, with Seferovic getting the winner. Far bigger tests await for Switzerland who look a dark horse this summer.
Denmark, so often characterized as a tough counter-attacking side went goal crazy this week. They opened up with an impressive 2-0 win in Israel with Jonas Wind continuing to press his claims up front with a fine volley. Moldova were never likely to present a serious challenge, but five goals in the opening 21 minutes showed off the impressive firepower of Kasper Hjulmand’s team who ran out 8-0 winners. Then came a tougher assignment in Austria. After a slow start, it was again a devastating burst, this time four goals in 16 minutes that sent Denmark on their way with Joakin Maehle grabbing the pick of the bunch. Denmark gave England and Belgium plenty of problems in the Nations League and look to be a threat this summer.
Holland made a terrible start to qualifying when a deflected goal put them on the backfoot in Turkey. A penalty followed by a goal straight after halftime had the Dutch 3-0 down before a late fightback gave Holland hope, ultimately going down 4-2. At home to Latvia, the result was rarely in doubt with Steven Berghuis hitting a spectacular opening goal and Luuk De Jong grabbing his second goal of the week to send the Dutch on their way to a comfortable 2-0 win.
A trip to minnows Gibraltar shouldn’t have provided any problems, but Holland were fortunate not to fall behind and were held until the 42nd minute when Berghuis’ goal saved their blushes. Things improved in the second half with De Jong opening the floodgates on 55 minutes. Holland found their mojo, knocking in another six and took advantage of Turkey’s slip against Latvia.
It has been a mixed start to World Cup qualifying for Spain, who saw Alvaro Morata’s goal against Greece cancelled out by a second half penalty. Things looked worse when Spain shockingly fell behind against Georgia in Tbilisi. Ferran Torres drew Spain level in injury time as Dani Olmo unleashed a fierce shot that Georgian goalkeeper Loria could only tip into the far corner and Spain had their win. Olmo and Torres were both on target again as Spain eased into a two-goal lead over Kosovo. However, goalkeeper Unai Simon went walkabout and Spain were hauled back to 2-1 with 20 minutes to go. Gerard Moreno came off the bench to restore the two-goal cushion and Spain assumed the lead in Group B.
It was a truly strange week for defending champions Portugal. It started with a narrow 1-0 win over Azerbaijan achieved via a bizarre own goal. Then came a tricky-looking encounter with Serbia, but Portugal appeared to be making light work of the Serbs when Liverpool’s Diogo Jota scored twice to put them up 2-0. Serbia fought back to level at 2-2, but deep into injury time, Ronaldo appeared to win the game with his angled shot clearly crossing the line, yet with no goal line technology, referee Daniel Makkelie ruled the ball had been cleared. Alarm bells were ringing again in Luxembourg when the hosts took a shocking lead. Portugal kept their cool and both Jota and Ronaldo were on target to ease them ahead and they eventually ran out 3-1 winners.
Gareth Southgate became the first individual to both play and manage England 50 times in a routine 5-0 win over San Marino, with Dominic Calvert Lewin scoring twice and Ollie Watkins grabbing a goal in his debut. England then wore down a stubborn Albania with Harry Kane and Mason Mount netting in a comfortable 2-0 win. A sterner test against Poland saw Raheem Sterling draw an early penalty ably dispatched by Kane, yet England almost threw it away when John Stones was caught dawdling on the ball as Poland drew level. Stones made amends by nodding back a corner for Harry Maguire to thunder home a late winner, leaving England sitting pretty on nine points.
The world’s first-ranked side were shaken early by Harry Wilson’s early goal for Wales in Leuven. Kevin De Bruyne’s rasping 25-yard strike leveled matters before Thorgan Hazard gave the hosts the lead. Romelu Lukaku made sure of the win from the spot. Belgium looked jaded in their second group game away to Czech Republic and found themselves deservedly behind early in the second half. Lukaku restored parity with a fine shot, but in the closing stages, Belgium only survived for a point through the last ditch clearance of Toby Alderweireld.
Belgium rounded off the week with their undercard annihilating Belarus 8-0, with Leandro Trossard continuing his fine form with two goals and Christian Benteke coming off the bench to grab the final goal.
Roberto Mancini’s team made it 22 games unbeaten with three wins from three games this week. Domenico Berardi’s fine finish got Mancini’s side rolling in a 2-0 win over Northern Ireland. Against Bulgaria, Italy grounded out a 2-0 win thanks to Andrea Belotti’s first half penalty and substitute Manuel Locatelli made sure of the win with a nice finish in the closing stages.
Lithuania shouldn’t have posed Italy any major problems, but goalkeeper Tomas Svedkauskas had other ideas, pulling off a string of saves to keep Italy at bay until Stefano Sensi broke Lithuania’s resistance in the second half before Ciro Immobile made sure of the win from the spot. Italy aren’t the best team in Europe right now, but they are the most in form.
The World Champions appeared to make the perfect start to their title defence through a superb Antoine Griezmann strike against Ukraine. However, Ukraine fought back to level the match and France were left to rue two big misses from Olivier Giroud. Kazakstan were never likely to offer similar resistance and Ousmane Dembele grabbed an early goal as France eased to a 2-0 win, despite a Kylian Mbappe penalty miss. A tough encounter on Bosnia followed and Griezmann was again on hand to nod in the winner, although France were grateful to Hugo Lloris for a fine save to deny Bosnia an equalizer. It was an understated week from France, but as they’ve proved time and again they can get it done when it matters.