Qualifying is under way and in just 15 months Germany will host the 17th running of the European Championships. Qualifying consists of ten groups with two qualifiers from each joining Germany in the finals. The final three places will be determined from playoffs based on results from last year’s Nations League. The first run of qualifiers saw more records for Cristiano Ronaldo and Harry Kane, a couple of seismic shocks and left several big footballing nations with plenty of questions to ponder.
Dropping Out: Kosovo, Ukraine
24. (NE) Kazakhstan
The first shock of the week came from Kazakhstan who came from two down to beat Denmark. There was little sign of that on Thursday night when Kazakhstan were beaten 2-1 by Slovenia at the Astana Arena, despite taking an early lead through Maxim Samorodov’s header. On Sunday afternoon Denmark as expected went into a 2-0 lead and seemed in control until they gave away a needless penalty which Baktiyor Zainutdinov converted for 1-2. Kazakhstan went for broke and on 86 minutes captain Abzal Beysebekov picked up the ball on the left and smashed home from 22 yards to equalize. Three minutes later a Yan Vorogovskiy cross was powered home by Abat Aimbetov and Kazakhstan were in dreamland. Kazakhstan are guaranteed a playoff spot via the Nations League and will now believe they won’t need it.
23. (-2) Bosnia & Herzegovina
Bosnia have never qualified for the Euros as an independent nation but will be playing in Nations League A next season and entered qualifying in confident mood. A brace from Rade Krunic and a fine sole effort from young wingback Amar Dedic ensured a 3-0 win over Iceland. However things didn’t go according to plan away to Slovakia, Bosnia allowed Robert Mak time to pick his spot on 13 minutes and a fine finish from Lukas Haraslin made it 2-0 before halftime. Bosnian strikers Smail Prevljak and Ermedin Demirovic spurned golden chances and even summoning Edin Dzeko from the bench couldn’t spark a revival. Next up is a tough trip to Portugal, enticingly Bosnia’s final qualifier will be the return match with Slovakia.
22. (-7) Norway
Excitement around Norway’s young team took a knock when Erling Haaland pulled out of their squad with injury. Facing a tough examination from Spain, Norway’s defence was breached after just 13 minutes as the Spanish threatened to run riot. Norway improved in the second half but finally conceded again on 84 minutes and were beaten 3-0. Norway needed a positive result away to Georgia and they got a perfect start when Alexander Sorloth got the opener on 15 minutes. Disaster struck on the hour when Georges Mikautadze equalized and Norway had to settle for a point. Four of Norway’s remaining six games will be at home starting with a must win clash against Scotland, where they will be desperate to welcome back their star striker.
21. (NE) Romania
Romania got the gentlest of starts to qualifying. Beginning away to Andorra, Romania took a first half lead through Dennis Man’s 35th minute header. The game was put to bed straight after the break when Denis Alibec latched onto Razvan Marin’s throughball as Romania ran out 2-0 winners. Next up came a home tie with Belarus and captain Nicolae Stanciu set the tone by curling in free kick on 17 minutes. Romania quickly doubled their lead when Andrei Burca poked in Marin’s cross. Belarus fought back and pulled a goal back with four minutes to go to make for a nervy finale, but Romania held on. Bigger tests await for Romania but they’ve already built a four point cushion on third placed Kosovo in Group I.
20. (-2) Sweden
Sweden welcomed back 41-year goalscoring legend Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but it proved a unhappy return as Sweden crashed 3-0 at home to Belgium, Dejan Kulusevski forced an early goal-line clearance but Belgium’s superior class proved too much. The Swedes then overcame Azerbaijan, Emil Forsberg powering forward from midfield to give them the first half lead. The decisive moment cam on 65 minutes when Alexander Isak forced an own goal for 2-0. From there Sweden ran up the score with Jesper Karlsson’s brilliant free-kick the highlight in a 5-0 win with Viktor Gyokeres and Anthony Elanga also scoring. Group F looks one of the tougher sections and with a low seeding from the Nations League, Sweden look vulnerable to missing out on Germany.
19. (-7) Poland
Former Portugal boss Fernando Santos’ reign with Poland got off to a disastrous start as they fell two goals behind in the opening two minutes against the Czech Republic. The acrobatics of Wojciech Szczesny kept Poland in the contest but the Czechs eventually grabbed a third before substitute Damian Szymanski grabbed a late consolation in a 3-1 defeat. That result upped the stakes when Albania were the visitors in Warsaw. Karol Swiderski eased Polish nerves when he stabbed home just before halftime. The Poles went close to adding to their lead with Robert Lewandowski going close but the 1-0 win was enough to get Poland up and running.
18. (+5) Slovenia
Slovenia haven’t appeared at a major finals since the 2010 World Cup, but got off to a winning start in Group H. Facing an awkward trip to Kazakhstan, Slovenia fell behind in the first half but David Brekalo equalized from a set piece early in the second. A fine volley from debutant Zan Vipotnik gave Slovenia the edge but they needed a smart injury time stop from Jan Oblak to preserve the 2-1 win. Slovenia then endured a frustrating first half against San Marino before finally taking the lead when Benjamin Sesko’s header from a rebound found its way in. A Vipotnik cross was then headed in by a San Marino defender to make it 2-0. Slovenia are now eight games unbeaten and are sitting pretty atop Group H.
17. (+3) Czech Republic
The Czechs put a disastrous 2022 behind them with a stunning start against Poland in Prague. Ladislav Krejci headed home a long throw after just 27 seconds to give the Czechs the lead, 90 seconds later David Jurasek dug out a testing cross for Tomas Cvancara to poke home for 2-0. The Czechs were on the front foot throughout and made it 3-0 through Jan Kuchta midway through the second half, before the Poles pulled a goal back in a 3-1 win. The Czechs then faced Moldova but found their hosts stubborn opponents, Tomas Soucek hit the crossbar when it looked easier to score as the Czech’s were frustrated into a 0-0 draw, but they remain the early leaders in Group E.
16. (-) Wales
Life after Gareth Bale for Wales began with a tough trip to Croatia. A patched-up Wales struggled to contain their hosts with Danny Ward making two smart stops to keep Croatia at bay. On 28 minutes an awful mistake from Neco Williams let Andrej Kramaric in to give Croatia the lead. Wales were under the cosh throughout but in the last minute of injury time a hopeful long throw found its way through to debutant Nathan Broadhead who prodded in an unlikely equaliser. Bale was on hand to say his farewells in Cardiff ahead of Wales’ clash with Latvia. It proved a simpler affair for the Welsh with Kiefer Moore heading home a Dan James cross in a comfortable 1-0 win. With key players to return from injury and four points on the board, Rob Page will be satisfied with the progress of his new look team.
15. (+2) Austria
Ralf Rangnick has Austria on an upward curve and they overpowered Azerbaijan in Linz. Marcel Sabitzer’s precise finish on 28 minutes opened the scoring and within a minute Michael Gregoritsch made it 2-0. Sabitzer added a third with a brilliant free-kick and his corner was nodded home by Christoph Baumgartner in a 4-1 win. A home tie with Estonia was expected to provide an easy win, but an early penalty miss from Gregoritsch set the tone for a dramatic night. Estonia took a shock lead on 23 minutes through Rauno Sappinen to stun the Linz crowd. Rangnick brought on David Alaba for the second half and the breakthrough finally came on 68 minutes when Florian Kainz equalized from a rebound. Gregoritsch then made up for his miss with a calm finish on 88 minutes to give Austria the win. Next up is a tough trip to Belgium but Austria currently lead Group F.
14. (-) Hungary
After their strong showing in the Nations League, Hungary began their week with a 1-0 friendly win over Estonia at the Puskas Arena. When qualifying finally got underway on Monday, Hungary made light work of Bulgaria. Balint Vecsei tapped in the opener before a brilliant free-kick from main man Dominik Szoboszlai made it 2-0. A swift counter attack in the 39th minute set up Martin Adam for 3-0 and from there Hungary controlled and saw out the win. Hungary are an ascending team in one of the weaker groups and look well placed to play a third successive Euros.
13. (+7) Scotland
Scotland’s campaign got off to a flying start at Hampden Park. Against Cyprus Andrew Robertson’s deflected cross was turned home by John McGinn to give them the early lead. Despite their dominance the Scots had to wait until the 87th minute to add a second when substitute Scott McTominay lashed home and the midfielder then added a third deep in injury time to complete a 3-0 win. Then Spain were the visitors at a fervent Hampden, Scotland pressed from the start and Robertson forced a mistake to get in a cross for McTominay to open the scoring on seven minutes. As temperatures rose the Scots kept their heads and Lyndon Dykes almost extended their lead on the stroke of halftime. Six minutes into the second half Kieran Tierney powered down the left to cross and McTominay was again on hand to drill in for 2-0 and a famous win. Manager Steve Clarke said post match his team have put down a marker after Scotland’s best result in decades.
12. (+1) Serbia
Serbia were a surprise absentee from Euro 2020 but skipper Dusan Tadic stroked home their first goal of qualifying against Lithuania. Serbia’s defensive lapses were exposed at the World Cup and they were fortunate not to concede an equalizer to their limited opponents before Dusan Vlahovic’s fine finish ensured a 2-0 win. A local derby against Montenegro proved a tough encounter but Serbia eventually wore the home side down, Vlahovic providing a smart finish on 78 minutes and coolly slotted home on the break in injury time to make it 2-0 and put Serbia top of Group G.
11. (-5) Netherlands
Ronaldo Koeman’s second stint as Netherlands boss got off to a horrific start as the Dutch were torn to shreds by a rampant France. In Paris, the Dutch fell three down in 22 minutes, with Memphis Depay seeing his late penalty saved to complete a miserable night. In Rotterdam against Gibraltar the Dutch labored despite Depay opening the scoring with a 23rd minute header. Defender Nathan Ake became an unlikely goal threat with two second half strikes making it 3-0 but the expected goal glut didn’t materialize even after the limited guests were reduced to ten men. The Dutch were without key duo Frenkie De Jong and Cody Gakpo but this was a week that underlined how far the Dutch are from becoming major contenders in Germany.
10. (-1) Denmark
After a dismal World Cup Denmark were back in the familiar surroundings of Parken Stadium. They overcame local rivals Finland 3-1 and found a new hero in 20-year-old striker Rasmus Hojlund. The young Atalanta forward opened the scoring with a close range finish before Finland fought back to level. The Danes’ superior quality eventually told with Hojlund nodding in the second and completing his hat-trick in injury time. It looked like being a similar story away to Kazakhstan with Hojlund’s neat lob opening the scoring and the in-form striker adding a second before halftime. Denmark were cruising but with 20 minutes to go Jonas Wind gave away a penalty to let Kazakhstan back into the game, two stunning late strikes saw Denmark collapse to a shock 3-2 defeat. Denmark remain favorites in Group H but need to be more careful on their travels, they host Northern Ireland in June.
9. (+2) Switzerland
After their World Cup capitulation to Portugal, Switzerland wasted little time getting back on the horse against Belarus. Renato Steffen poked home the opener on four minutes and completed a 29 minute hat-trick to put the Swiss in complete control. Switzerland dominated the second half with Granit Xhaka picking his spot for 4-0 and Zeki Amdouni rounding off the scoring with his first for his country. Switzerland then hosted Israel in a game they dominated throughout and took the lead when Ruben Vargas struck on 38 minutes. Two minutes into the second half Amdouni grabbed a poacher’s effort for 2-0 and four minutes later Silvan Widmar grabbed a well worked third to make sure of the points. With key players to return from injury Switzerland look a class above the rest of Group I.
8. (-) Italy
A difficult week for the holders began with Roberto Mancini bemoaning his diminishing talent pool whilst taking criticism for ignoring the claims of a talented Lazio contingent. Italy were hammered in the first half of the re-match of the Euro 2020 final by England as they fell 2-0 down. A much improved second half saw Argentinian born striker Mateo Retegui grab a debut goal whilst Wilfried Gnonto impressed late as Italy took the game to England but came away with a 2-1 defeat. Away to group minnows Malta Gianluigi Donnarumma spared Italian blushes with a fine early save before Retegui made it two in two to give Italy the lead. Matteo Pessina added a second to guarantee the points, however the 2-0 win won’t de-escalate the mounting pressure on Mancini.
7. (-) Germany
Hansi Flick has 15 months of friendlies and Nations League to prepare Germany for a home tournament. Peru were the visitors in Mainz where the unlikely rise of Niclas Fullkrug continued. The 30-year-old Werder Bremen target man bagged a brace as Germany ran out comfortable 2-0 winners. Belgium were next up and Germany were outclassed in the early stages, falling 2-0 down after nine minutes. Fullkrug converted a penalty on the stroke of halftime to hand Germany a lifeline. Germany improved in the second half but familiar defensive frailties were evident and Belgium grabbed a third making Serge Gnabry’s late goal academic. Flick handed out five debuts to underscore Germany are in transition but they need rapid improvement to contend their own tournament.
6. (-2) Spain
The Luis de la Fuente era began with a mixed week for Spain. The new look Spain took the lead against Norway after just 13 minutes when Dani Olmo clipped in a teasing Alvaro Morata cross. Spain exhibited their trademark dominance of possession but the recalled Kepa Arrizabalaga was called into evasive action to preserve the 1-0 lead. Spain secured the win when 32-year-old debutant Joselu came off the bench and snatched two goals in the final six minutes to make it 3-0. Then came the trip to Scotland and de la Fuente sprung a shock by making eight changes to a winning side. Spain struggled to find their usual fluency and Pedro Porro was forced into an early mistake to let Scotland in for the first goal. Joselu hit the crossbar as Spain searched for a response. Another defensive mistake let Scotland in again for 2-0 as Spain fell apart and to only their second defeat in 39 Euro qualifiers.
5. (+5) Belgium
Domenico Tedesco’s new look Belgium got their campaign off to an impressive start with a dominant 3-0 win over Sweden in Solna. Belgium started tentatively and were thankful for Wout Faes’ goal-line clearance in the early exchanges. Then the much maligned Romelu Lukaku opened his account with a glancing header. Winger Dodi Lukebakio jinked his way to the touchline and gave Lukaku a tap-in for 2-0 and debutant Johan Bakayoko broke clear late on to tee-up Lukaku who duly completed his hat-trick. For the friendly against Germany Tedesco picked a strong side and Belgium’s class was again on show with Yannick Carrasco and Lukaku firing them 2-0 up inside ten minutes. Lukaku then gave away a penalty just before halftime to halve the lead. Kevin De Bruyne then struck from a swift attack to restore the two goal cushion before Germany hit a late consolation. Belgium may be in a new era but they don’t look like leaving Europe’s top table.
4. (+1) Croatia
Croatia began their campaign at home to Wales. Luka Modric as ever pulled the strings and Croatia’s dominance was rewarded when Andrej Kramaric took advantage of a defensive mistake to lash in the first half opener. Matteo Kovacic should have made it 2-0 as Croatia spurned their chances to put the game to bed, with Ivan Perisic’s deft volley hitting the Welsh crossbar. Croatia paid for their profligate finishing when Wales bundled home an injury time equalizer. Then came a tricky looking away match in Turkey. Croatia were under pressure early and needed two brilliant stops from Dominik Livakovic to keep them level. Croatia settled and Mateo Kovacic gave them the lead on 20 minutes. In the final seconds of the first half Kovacic was on hand to prod in his second after Turkey’s goalkeeper spilled Mario Pasalic’s shot. Next up for Croatia it’s the Nations League finals and a chance of silverware.
3. (-) Portugal
Cristiano Ronaldo can’t stay out of the headlines as he became the most capped international player of all-time with his 197th appearance for Portugal against Liechtenstein. Joao Cancelo opened the scoring before Bernardo Silva made it 2-0, then Ronaldo knocked in a penalty and his trademark free kick made it 4-0. Next up were Luxembourg who were ruthlessly despatched, Ronaldo opened the scoring with Joao Felix and Bernanrdo Silva both heading home to make it 3-0 after 18 minutes. A neat Ronaldo finish and goals from subs Otavio and Rafael Leao completing the 6-0 rout. For new boss Roberto Martinez and Ronaldo the question remains can CR7 still provide the magic when Portugal run into stiffer opposition?
2. (-) England
Harry Kane put his World Cup penalty agony behind him by converting from the spot to become England’s all-time record goalscorer and secure their first away win over Italy since 1961. England dominated the first half in Naples with the impressive Declan Rice opening the scoring before Kane grabbed the headlines. England were grateful to Rice and John Stones for keeping Italy at bay in a second half which saw Luke Shaw see red. At home to Ukraine, England controlled proceedings with Bukayo Saka providing the cutting edge, first he crossed for Kane to open the scoring on 37 minutes and three minutes later dropped a shoulder and curled a rasping drive in for 2-0. With Malta and North Macedonia to come in June, England already have control of Group C.
1. (-) France
France took their frustrations at losing the World Cup out on Netherlands in a thumping 4-0 win at the Stade de France. Antoine Griezmann’s beautiful first time finish made it 1-0 in the second minute before Dayot Upamecano bundled in a second after just eight minutes. Then new captain Kylian Mbappe took center stage with a fine brace and new number one Mike Maignan rounded off a perfect evening with an injury time penalty save. On Monday night in Dublin the Republic of Ireland proved a tougher nut to crack with France struggling to unlock a well organized defence. The breakthrough came early in the second half when forgotten man Benjamin Pavard hit a rocket from the edge of the box, but it was Maignan who secured the win with a diving save in the 89th minute. What will be troubling everyone else is France have lost Hugo Lloris, Raphael Varane and Karim Benzema to retirement but haven’t missed a beat.
Team of the week: Ward (Wales); Pavard (France)- Stones (England)- Faes (Belgium)- Robertson (Scotland); Rice (England)- Modric (Croatia)- McTominay (Scotland); Mbappe (France)- Lukaku (Belgium)- Hojlund (Denmark)