The international week is over as the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign enters the home straight. This week saw 6 teams confirm their places in the 24 team finals, with several favourites suffering surprise defeats, another landmark for Cristiano Ronaldo, late drama in Scandinavia and sadly some appalling scenes in Bulgaria.
24. Wales (NE)
It’s been a tough qualifying campaign for Wales but they are back in the hunt to grab second place in Group E. Kieffer Moore’s header gave the Welsh a first half lead in Slovakia, but Juraj Kucka equalised early in the second half to ensure the hosts a share of the spoils. Then came the big test at home to group leaders Croatia. Wales fell behind inside 10 minutes but regrouped and on the stroke of half-time Ben Davies threaded a ball through for Gareth Bale, who’s shrugged off Dejan Lovren and slotted it home. Wales had the better chances in the second half but were forced to settle for a 1-1 draw.
Wales remain in fourth place, 4 points behind Hungary (who’ve played a game more) and 2 behind Slovakia. However Slovakia have a tough away game in Croatia whilst Wales face bottom placed Azerbaijan, then the group concludes with Hungary facing Wales in Cardiff. Needless to say Bale’s fitness is key for Wales.
23. Northern Ireland (-1)
Michael O’Neill’s side were 15 minutes from one of their all time great results, but fell agonisingly short against Holland. When Stuart Dallas shook off Daley Blind to cross and Josh Magennis headed home, the upset was on in Rotterdam. After successfully frustrating the Dutch for most of the game, Northern Ireland were overwhelmed with Memphis Depay equalising and two injury time strikes shattering O’Neill’s men.
Northern Ireland then had to watch Germany and Holland win their games in hand to move above them in Group C. They did however gain a morale boosting away win over the Czech Republic in a friendly with Paddy McNair scoring twice. It means Northern Ireland will need to beat Holland at Windsor Park next month and get a draw away to Germany, otherwise they’ll be nervously watching how the playoff picture shakes out.
22. Romania (+1)
Romania just managed to stay in the hunt in Group F. An away game against the Faroe Islands should have provided an easy win, but despite dominating the game Romania struggled to find a way through. Striker George Puskas broke the deadlock when he slotted home on 74 minutes, with a fine individual goal from Alexandru Mitrita and poachers effort from Claudiu Keseru completing the 3-0 win.
Romania then hosted fourth paced Norway and the drama began midway through the second half when Mitrita put Romania ahead. With Sweden also ahead against Spain, Romania needed to hang on to stay in contention for second place in the group. Disaster appeared to strike when Alex Sorloth headed in an injury time equaliser and Romanian hopes hung by a thread. However, Spain’s last gasp equaliser pegged back Sweden and the three way battle for second spot is still on. Next up, it’s the do or die clash with Sweden in Bucharest.
21. Iceland (-2)
Iceland’s hope of qualifying for a third consecutive finals were dealt a major blow this week. At home to France, Iceland struggled to pressure the team that knocked them out of Euro 2016. Goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson was kept busy throughout but was sent the wrong way when France won a penalty to condemn Iceland to a 1-0 defeat.
Iceland kept their slim hopes alive with a routine 2-0 home win over Andorra. Young midfielder Arnor Sigurdsson tapped in the opener with Kolbeinn Sithorsson grabbing a record equalling 26th goal for Iceland. It all means Iceland must beat Turkey away and hope other results go their way, otherwise it’s to the playoffs.
20. Czech Republic (NE)
The Czech Republic pulled off a major shock in Group A by beating an out of sorts England in Prague. It looked ominous when England took the early lead, but Jakub Brabec turned home a corner to level the game after 9 minutes. The Czechs created the better chances with Lukas Masopust a constant threat down the right. It was Masopust who created the breakthrough when he crossed for 30-year-old debutant Zdenek Ondrasek who found the bottom corner on 85 minutes.
The result saw the Czechs leapfrog Kosovo into second place in Group A and the two will clash next month in Plzen in what looks like a playoff for second spot. An experimental Czech side then lost a friendly to Northern Ireland, but they will be delighted with their week’s work.
19. Republic of Ireland (-2)
Ireland played out a dire 0-0 draw in Georgia with John Egan’s early header against the post the closest either side came to a goal. In a tight group this was a game Ireland needed to win and manager Mick McCarthy was on cranky form when the Irish media questioned his tactics ahead of a tough away game in Switzerland.
The Swiss dominated the first half and took a deserved 1-0 lead. Ireland improved after the break but again struggled to create clear cut chances. As the game became stretched, Seamus Coleman saw red as Ireland conceded a penalty. Darren Randolph managed to save it, but the Swiss kept Ireland at arms length and Shane Duffy conceded an own goal at the death. It means Ireland will almost certainly have to beat Denmark in Dublin next month to qualify, without key duo Coleman and Duffy.
18. Austria (+3)
Austria’s late surge continued in Group G with two vital wins. Against Israel in Vienna, the hosts fell behind to a strike from qualifying top scorer Eran Zahavi. But Austria responded quickly through Valentino Lazaro and Martin Hinteregger with yet another howitzer from Marcel Sabitzer making sure of the 3-1 win.
Then came a tough away trip to face in-form Slovenia. Austria got their noses ahead early when Hoffenheim defender Stefan Posch headed home at the near post. Austria had the better of the contest and saw out a deserved 1-0 win. After losing their opening two games, Austria are now on the brink of qualification with a home draw against North Macedonia next month enough to ensure their passage to the finals.
17. Finland (-1)
Can Finland hold their nerve and claim a first ever place in a major finals? It certainly didn’t appear that way in Bosnia, where they cracked under the home side’s early pressure and found themselves 2-0 at half time. Miralem Pjanic’s second half strike made sure of a hefty 4-1 defeat and the nerves were jangling as third placed Armenia were the visitors on Tuesday night.
However under pressure Finland turned in their best display of the tournament with Fredrik Jensen putting them ahead in the first half. In the second half Finland’s main man Teemu Pukki took center stage with a trademark finish, giving the Fins breathing room before grabbing a late third to complete a 3-0 win. With other results going their way, it means Finland will make history if they beat bottom of the table Liechtenstein in Helsinki next month.
16. Turkey (+1)
Turkey are the surprise leaders of Group H. With principle rivals France and Iceland facing each other on Friday night, it was essential Turkey took maximum points against Albania in Istanbul. The pressure looked to be telling on Turkey as they squandered a hatful of chances, but the critical moment came in the 90th minute when a mix up in the Albanian defence left Cenk Tosun with an open goal as Turkey secured a 1-0 win.
Then it was off to Paris to face France. Turkey withstood relentless pressure from the hosts with goalkeeper Mert Gunok the hero with a string of vital saves. The effort did however look in vain when Olivier Giroud put France ahead on 76 minutes, but up stepped substitute Kaan Ayhan to nod home the equaliser with 8 minutes to play to grab a 1-1 draw. A draw at home to Iceland will guarantee Turkey’s passage to the finals, failing that they need to beat Andorra in their final group game.
15. Sweden (Stay)
Sweden were left frustrated but remain well placed in Group F. They began the week with a routine 4-0 win over hapless Malta, with debutant Marcus Danielson volleying the opener and Sebastian Larsson knocking in 2 penalties.
Then came the critical hime clash with group leaders Spain, who drubbed the Swedes 3-0 earlier in qualifying. This time however Sweden held firm and on 50 minutes veteran goal poacher Marcus Berg gave them the lead. It seemed to be enough to secure an impressive win but deep into injury time Rodrigo equalised for Spain to leave Sweden on the floor. When the dust settles, this may prove a critical point gained with a trip to Romania and easy home game with the Faroe Islands still to come.
14. Poland (-1)
Poland recovered from their poor results in September to book their place at the finals. Unsurprisingly it was Robert Lewandowski who got them back on track with a pair of early goals and eventual hat trick beating Latvia 3-0.
That took Poland to match point in Group G with a win over North Macedonia in Warsaw required. Poland struggled and manager Jerzy Brzeczek turned to his bench for inspiration. The move worked with substitute Przemyslaw Frankowski tapping home the breakthrough and his fellow sub Arkadiusz Milik adding the killer second goal with a long range drive. It wasn’t pretty but it’s mission accomplished for the Poles.
13. Switzerland (-4)
The Swiss are in a dogfight in Group D. Late goals have been the scourge of Switzerland’s campaign and a familiar story unfolded against Denmark. Granit Xhaka and Ricardo Rodriguez both hit the bar but the Swiss were left to rue those missed chances when Denmark struck in the 84th minute.
That defeat made beating Ireland in Geneva a must. Switzerland started well and took the lead through Haris Serferovic’s clinical strike. Switzerland spurned a string of chances to make the game safe with Stephen Lichsteiner and Fabian Schar going close. Then Rodriguez saw a penalty saved and deja vu was in the air. This time however the Swiss saw the game out with Edimilson Fernandes’ last gasp drive forcing an own goal and 2-0 win. Switzerland remain in third place, but with a game in hand on the Irish, wins over Georgia and Gibraltar next month will seal the deal.
12. Denmark (+2)
The Danes gained control of Group D thanks to a win over top seed Switzerland in Copenhagen. Kasper Schmeichel was the hero with critical saves to keep the game level. Christian Eriksen finally unlocked the Swiss defence with his clever pass sending Yussuf Poulsen away whose clinical finish bagged all three points in the 84th minute.
Denmark then completed a routine friendly win over Luxembourg. With the open goal of a game against Gibraltar to come, Denmark need a draw away to Ireland to qualify.
11. Croatia (Stay)
It’s been an erratic campaign for the World Cup finalists, but Croatia are now in pole position to qualify from Group E. Needing to beat Hungary at home the evergreen Luka Modric popped up with an early goal to give Croatia the lead. Then Dinamo Zagreb’s in-form Bruno Petkovic back heeled in a second and added a close range third to secure the win 3-0 before halftime.
Then came a tough encounter away to Wales and Petkovic made a telling contribution playing in Nikola Vlasic for the opener on 9 minutes. In a tense encounter Wales equalised on the stroke of halftime and Croatia had to settle for the draw. A draw at home to third placed Slovakia will ensure qualification next month, however Croatia will have to do it without first choice centre back duo Lovren and Domogoj Vida who both picked up suspensions in Cardiff.
10. Russia (+2)
Russia have made it to the finals after a pair off convincing wins sealed their qualification. After being held to a scoreless first half by Scotland at the Luzhniki Stadium, Artem Dzyuba headed Russia into the lead. A brilliant long range strike from Magomed Ozdoev made it 2-0 before Dzyuba and Aleksandr Golovin rounded off a comfortable 4-0 win.
Cyprus were the one remaining team who could have pipped Russia to second sport in Group I, when the two teams faced off in Nicosia. Russia got a dream start when Denis Cheryshev broke away down the left and rifled home the opener on 9 minutes. Ozdoev made it 2-0 before halftime before Dzyuba notched his ninth goal of the campaign with Golovin and Cheryshev completing the 5-0 rout late in the game.
9. Ukraine (+1)
Ukraine confirmed their qualification for the finals from a tough looking Group B with a game to spare. Atalanta midfielder Ruslan Malinovskyi’s powerful finish gave Ukraine the lead at home to Lithuania, before adding a second with a curling free kick.
Then came the big test as Ronaldo and Portugal rolled into Kyiv. Again Andriy Shevchenko’s side were up to the task as Roman Yarechuk gave them the early lead. Things got even better midway through the first half with West Ham’s Andriy Yarmolenko adding his 37th goal for his country to make it 2-0. Portugal dominated possession and pushed Ukraine deeper but despite Ronaldo’s second half penalty Ukraine hung on for the win. This is a young improving side who after success at the Under 20 World Cup and in the Nations League could be one to watch next summer.
8. Germany (Stay)
Another puzzling week of mixed fortunes for Germany. A friendly against Argentina saw Serge Gnabry score 2 quick goals. That brace took the in-form forward to an astonishing 10 goals in his last 11 internationals. However the visitors who were without Leo Messi hit back to draw 2-2, with Germany’s familiar defensive frailties on show again.
Resuming their qualification campaign on Sunday, Germany visited Estonia for what should have been a routine win. However Joachim Low’s team made life difficult for themselves when Emre Can was red carded after just 14 minutes. With the game 0-0 at the break the unlikely looked possible, but Ilkay Gundogan settled any nerves with a rasping long range effort on 51 minutes and repeated the trick a few minutes later to make it 2-0, with Timo Werner keeping his cool to add a third. With home games against Belarus and Northern Ireland to come, avoiding defeat is all Germany need to qualify.
7. Spain (-1)
Spain were held twice but confirmed their qualifaction. Facing Norway in Oslo, Saul Niguez’s sweet strike gave Spain the lead just after half time. It was a proud night for Sergio Ramos who broke Spain’s appearance record, but he didn’t count on club mate Martin Odegaard making him look a fool with his quick feet. Despite Fabian Ruiz hitting the woodwork twice, Spain couldn’t finish Norway off and when goalkeeper Kepa gave away an injury time penalty, Josh King secured a 1-1 draw.
Spain’s Scandinavian tour then pitched up in Solna to face Sweden. Despite their usual dominance of possession Spain fell behind. Sweden looked to have done enough, but in a desperate penalty box scramble it was Rodrigo who kept his cool to slot in the 92nd minute equaliser that guaranteed Spain’s place in the finals.
6. Italy (+1)
Italy put their World Cup qualifying nightmare behind them, by confirming their place at Euro 2020 with 3 games to spare. Facing Greece in Rome, Roberto Mancini’s side struggled to find their best form. Greece had their chances but a handball on 62 minutes handed Italy a penalty which Jorginho dispatched. With tension easing Federico Bernardeschi’s low drive took a deflection and Italy secured the win.
The ensuing visit to Liechtenstein looked like being a walkover when Bernardeschi put Italy ahead inside 2 minutes. Italy laboured and it took another 68 minutes for Andrea Belotti to make it 2-0. Belotti completed his brace in injury time with goals from Alessio Romagnoli and Stephen El Shaarawy adding gloss to the 5-0 score.
5. England (-1)
England’s 10 year and 43 match unbeaten run in qualifying tournaments came to an end with a surprise loss to the Czech Republic. Harry Kane’s early penalty had given them the perfect start but some awful defending and a poor midfield play saw the lead squandered with Michael Keane and Declan Rice enduring a night to forget as England lost 2-1.
Gareth Southgate wielded the axe for the trip to Bulgaria with debutant Tyrone Mings reinforcing the defence and Harry Winks providing control in midfield. Marcus Rashford opened the scoring with a vicious left wing shot, with Ross Barkley and Raheem Sterling rounding off fine team moves with 2 goals each and Kane adding a sixth goal late on. Sadly the game will be remembered for racist chanting and fascist gestures from a section of Bulgarian fans that lead to the referee suspending play twice. England require just a point from their last 2 games to qualify.
4. Portugal (-2)
The reigning European Champions still have work to do in order to defend their title next summer. The week started well with Bernardo Silva in majestic form as he swept in the opening goal against Luxembourg. Cristiano Ronaldo then got in on the act with a beautiful lobbed finish to extend Portugal’s lead before Goncalo Guedes rounded off an easy 3-0 win.
Then came the trip to Ukraine and Portugal were shellshocked, going 2-0 down after 27 minutes. Portugal rallied and peppered Andriy Pyatov’s goal with shots, but they couldn’t unlock Ukraine until a 72nd minute penalty was despatched by Ronaldo to set up a tense finish, but Portugal were beaten. The penalty was Ronaldo’s 700th goal in senior football but with Serbia just a point adrift Portugal cannot afford to slip up against Lithuania and Luxembourg.
3. Netherlands (+2)
After their brilliant display in Germany last month, Holland were expected to rollover Northern Ireland in Rotterdam. However the Dutch struggled for fluency and were frustrated for 75 minutes by a Northern Ireland side who took a shock lead after Daley Blind’s error. However Memphis Depay got the Dutch quickly on terms with a neat finish as the hosts finally found their range. They overwhelmed Northern Ireland in the closing stages and Luuk de Jong’s injury time goal earned them a vital win with Depay adding a third at the death.
Then came the away game to Belarus. Again the Dutch were short of their best but Giorginio Wijnaldum broke the deadlock with a header and added a second shortly after with a rasping long range drive. However Belarus refused to roll over and pulled a goal back early in the second half to make for a nervy end to the game. Holland now lead Group C and a point in the return match with Northern Ireland will see them home.
2. France (+1)
A big week for the World Champions who faced both their major Group H rivals. Missing Paul Pogba, N’golo Kante, Hugo Lloris and Kylian Mbappe France could have been vulnerable to another upset against Iceland. However the ever reliable Olivier Giroud got the only goal via the penalty spot, Wissam Ben Yedder should have made it two but for a woeful finish late on as it finished 1-0.
Then Turkey who beat France in June were the visitors at the Stade De France. Didier Deschamps selected Ben Yedder and the Monaco striker struggled with Antoine Griezmann and Moussa Sissoko spurning good chances. It was the introduction of Giroud finally opened Turkey up with his 38th goal for his country. But Turkey responded and their late header forced a draw and delayed France’s qualification. A win over Moldova next month will seal France’s place in the finals.
Belgium made sure of their place at Euro 2020 with two more routine wins that maintained their 100% record. According to the FIFA rankings Belgium’s home match with San Marino was a clash between the best and worst team in international football. It took Belgium 28 minutes to make the breakthrough via Romelu Lukaku with Nacer Chadli quickly adding a fine second goal. From then on it was men against boys with Youri Tielemans and Christian Benteke grabbing the pick of the goals in a 9-0 win.
Kazakhstan away proved a tougher nut to crack but Micky Batshuayi’s close range finish opened the scoring and Eden Hazard’s sublime long pass sent in Thomas Meunier for the second in a 2-0 win. Belgium still have concerns partiucarly with the creaking back three (combined aged 95) but they have scored 30 goals in Group I and have been the outstanding team of qualifying.
Dropping out: Kosovo, Slovenia
Featured Image: Getty