The qualification campaign is over and 20 teams have booked their place at Euro 2020, a further 16 will try again in the playoffs next year and for 19 the journey is over, with 2004 champions Greece the most notable team eliminated. This week saw one nation reach a major milestone, another reach their first ever major finals and high drama as teams fought it out to spend next summer at Europe’s top table.
24. Slovakia (NE)
Slovakia started the week with their destiny in their own hands, but facing a tough away game in Croatia. Forced to play on the counter, Slovakia carried a threat throughout the first half and Stanislav Lobotka broke free to find Robert Bozenik, poking one home to give them a surprise lead. However, Croatia’s class told and they wrestled back control with two quick fire goals in the second half. Hopes of a Slovakian comeback were dashed when Robert Mak saw red and Croatia added a late third.
That meant Slovakia had to beat Azerbaijan at home and hope Hungary and Wales drew. Slovakia did all they could with Bozenik giving them the early lead and Marek Hamsik’s late strike making sure of the win, but the other result went against them. It’s the playoffs now and an anxious wait for Friday’s draw.
23. Republic of Ireland (-4)
Mick McCarthy’s side were forced to settle for the playoffs after coming up agonisingly short in Group D. They began the week with a glimpse into the future as McCarthy fielded a youthful side for a friendly against New Zealand. After going behind early, Ireland rebounded with Derrick Williams, Sean Maguire and Callum Robinson all netting their first goals for their country in a 3-1 win. However, events elsewhere determined Ireland would need to win their final group game against Denmark to qualify automatically for Euro 2020.
Ireland showed their usual drive and energy but failed to break the Danes down with David McGoldrick spurning their best half chance. Then disaster struck as Matt Doherty was caught napping and Denmark went ahead. Doherty atoned with an 85th minute equalizer to set up a tense finish. Ireland couldn’t fashion a clear cut chance and Denmark qualified at their expense. It’s been a dogged campaign from Ireland who lost just once, but struggled to score goals and never took the lead in four games against Denmark and Switzerland.
22. Norway (NE)
It’s playoff path C for Norway, after falling short in Group F despite winning their last two matches. They started with an easy win over Faroe Islands thanks to early strikes from Tore Reginiussen and Over Fossum, before a second half brace from Alexander Sorloth. Norway rounded off their campaign in Malta with Josh King bundling over the line for his fifth goal of the tournament, before Malta surprising pulled level late in the first half. Young midfielder Sander Berge sprung Malta’s offside trap midway through the second half and his cross found Sorloth whose cool finish ensured third place in Group F.
After their fine Nations League campaign Norway were always guaranteed a play off spot and with two of football’s most dynamic young attacking talents in Martin Odegaard and Erling Braut Haaland, they’ll be a handful for Serbia; who they’ll face in Oslo in March’s playoff semi final.
21. Iceland (Stay)
Iceland entered the week needing to beat Turkey to keep their automatic qualification hopes alive. They inevitably bombarded the Turkey box with crosses but Turkey’s central defensive pairing stood tall and Iceland struggled to carve out chances. Hannes Halldorsson and the crossbar kept Iceland in the tie with a clean sheet. Hordur Magnusson came close, but his shot was blocked by Merit Demiral and Iceland had to settle for a 0-0 draw and with it, the playoffs.
Iceland finished off the campaign with a win in Moldova. A fine move down the left was started and finished by Birkir Bjarnason. Moldova came back to level but Gylfi Sigurdsson stroked home the winner in a 2-1 win.
20. Czech Republic (Stay)
The Czech’s qualified from Group A after a comeback win over Kosovo in Pizen. Despite the hosts dominating proceedings, it seemed an upset was on the cards when Kosovo took a second half lead. The momentum shifted decisively when Alex Kral cracked in a spectacular 71st minute equaliser and nine minutes later, defender Ondrej Celustka scrambled in the winner to ensure the Czechs will be at the finals.
The campaign then ended on a downbeat note with a 1-0 defeat in Bulgaria, but it mattered little. This team does not have the Nedved’s or Poborsky’s of yesteryear but they are an improving young side with a strong club understanding from their sizeable Slavia Prague contingent.
19. Austria (-1)
Austria are through after sealing second place in Group G. David Alaba got the crucial early goal against North Macedonia, calmly rounding the goalkeeper to slot one home. The Austrians made a similar fast start to the second half and fullback Stefan Lainer doubled the hosts lead by tapping home a rebound from a corner. Although Macedonia pulled one back at the death, the 2-1 ensured Austria a second straight appearance at the finals.
Franco Foda then rested his stars for the dead rubber in Latvia, but the undercard failed to fire as the Latvians picked up their only points of qualifying in a shock 1-0 defeat for Austria. Despite the loss, it’s been a strong campaign from Austria and in Alaba, Marko Arnautovic and Marcel Sabitzer they have the makings of a dangerous attack next summer.
18. Wales (+6)
Euro 2016 semi finalists Wales will be at the finals again after back to back wins this week. Wales had taken just 8 points from their opening 6 games, but have found form at the right time and Slovakia’s loss in Croatia put Wales’ destiny in their own hands. Away to Azerbaijan they got the perfect start, when target man Kieffer Moore headed home from a corner. Wales had the result in the bag before halftime when Daniel James’ lofted effort rebounded off the woodwork and Harry Wilson was on hand to put away the second chance to make it 2-0.
Then, Hungary were the visitors for a winner takes all clash in Cardiff. Wales were finally able to call on Juventus’ Aaron Ramsey for his first start in a year. Ramsey made the early breakthrough as he headed in Gareth Bale’s cross after just 15 minutes. The captain struck again early in the second half to secure Wales’ place at the finals with a 2-0 win. Ryan Giggs’ side don’t lack for young attacking talent, but inevitably their hopes are firmly pinned on Ramsey and Bale.
17. Finland (Stay)
At the 33rd attempt Finland qualified for their first major finals as runners up in Group J. An expectant crowd gathered in Helsinki knowing a win over Liechtenstein would secure qualification, but the hosts were frustrated by a stubborn Liechtenstein side. That was until Jasse Tuominen slotted home from close range to break the deadlock midway through the first half. In the second half, Tuomien hit the post but then winger Pyry Soiri was hacked down in the box. Teemu Pukki stepped up to smash home the resulting penalty and then bundled over a third to send the home crowd into delirium.
With qualification in the bag, Finland travelled to Athens to face Greece in their final qualifier. Pukki’s tenth goal of the campaign gave the Fins an early lead, but Greece came back to record a 2-1 win, not that it dampened spirits back in Finland.
16. Turkey (Stay)
Turkey confirmed their qualification for the finals on a rainy night in Istanbul. Needing a point against Iceland to seal their place, Turkey were nervy against a side who’d beaten them three times in a row and Burak Yilmaz missed a glorious chance to give the hosts the lead. Turkey had the better chances but needed a block from the excellent Merih Demiral late on to keep Iceland out and secure the required 0-0 draw.
With their final game in Andorra a dead rubber, Turkey made changes and young striker Enes Unal tapped home his first goal for his country to give Turkey the lead, minutes later he doubled his tally from the penalty spot to wrap up a simple 2-0 win.
15. Russia (-5)
Having already booked their place at the finals last month, Russia faced a tough examination from group leaders Belgium. They were breached after just 19 minutes, with Belgium’s quicksilver attack going 3-0 up before halftime. Russia stuck to their task and did grab a late consolation to restore a little pride in a heavy 4-1 defeat.
Russia finished the campaign against the open goal that is San Marino. Daler Kuzyaev opened the scoring after 3 minutes and when Sergei Petrov doubled the lead within 20 minutes the game was done. Aleksei Miranchuk and Aleksei Ionov added further goals, before Nikolay Komlichenko netted his first for his country as Russia won 5-0. This week served as a reminder that whilst they are improving, Russia are someway short of Europe’s best.
14. Poland (Stay)
The Poles had already made sure of qualification last month but finished the campaign on a high. First their experimental lineup ended Israel’s slim automatic qualification hopes with two goals from corners, the first from Grezegorz Krychowiak and the later from Krzysztof Piatek as the Poles won 2-1 in Jerusalem.
Ahead of their final qualifier in Warsaw, Poland gave a guard of honour for Lucasz Piszczek for the 34-year-old’s final appearance for his country. The game against Slovenia proved an entertaining encounter with Sebastian Szymanski’s screamer opening the scoring after three minutes. Robert Lewandowski added his customary goal with a fine run and finish, but Slovenia twice fought back to equalise. The Poles settled the result late in the match with a tap in from Jacek Gorlski as Poland finished Group G with 25 points from a possible 30.
13. Denmark (-1)
The Danes started by making light work of Gibraltar with Robert Skov scoring early. However, Denmark had to wait until the second half to double their lead when a comical piece of defending handed Christian Gytkjaer an easy goal. Martin Braithwaite added a third, Skov claimed his second and Christian Eriksen added a late brace for a 6-0 win.
Then came the crunch clash with Ireland in Dublin. Needing just a point to qualify, Denmark were conservative but kept Ireland at arms length for long spells. Then Henrik Dalsgaard’s fine cross caught the Irish defence napping and Braithwaite pounced to give Denmark some breathing space at 1-0. Although Ireland fought back to equalise in the 85th minute, Denmark withstood the barrage and held out for the draw that seals their place
12. Ukraine (-3)
It was a low key end to a successful campaign for Ukraine. With qualification already assured, Ukraine began their week with a friendly win over Estonia, with Roman Bezus’ deflected free kick giving Ukraine the win in injury time.
They then travelled to Belgrade to face a Serbia side still hoping to leapfrog Portugal in Group B. The hosts took an early lead from the penalty spot but Roman Yaremchuk equalised with his fifth goal in just 12 internationals. Serbia retook the lead early in the second half but Ukraine what determined not to let their unbeaten qualification record go and in the 93rd minute substitute Artem Besedin found the bottom corner for the equaliser. It was a fitting end to impressive qualification for Ukraine from who will be in Pot 1 for the draw.
11. Sweden (+4)
At the World Cup Sweden turned the agony of conceding a last gasp goal against Germany to their advantage, and on Friday night they repeated the trick. After conceding a late equalizer against Spain last month, Swedish qualification hung in the balance when they faced a tricky tie in Romania. Sweden got the perfect start when Emil Forsberg crossed for veteran striker Marcus Berg, who headed in the opener after just 18 minutes. Berg then turned provider to set up strike partner Robin Quaison to make it 2-0 before halftime. From there on, Sweden controlled the game to ensure their qualification. Sadly the game was also marked by racist abuse directed at Sweden’s Alexander Isak and a temporary suspension of play in Bucharest.
Sweden rounded off their campaign with a routine over the Faroe Islands. Sebastian Andersson got the opener before 20-year-old Matthias Svanberg marked his debut with a goal. John Guidetti came off the bench to power home a header to complete a 3-0 win. It’s been an impressive campaign for Sweden who will play their sixth straight European finals next summer.
10. Switzerland (+3)
Switzerland’s campaign has been dominated by late goal drama and there was more in store as they finally made it through a tough Group D. Against Georgia in a match the Swiss couldn’t afford to lose, nerves were evident as they were frustrated by a stubborn Georgia defense. The visitors looked increasingly dangerous on the counter whilst Switzerland laboured, but the game swung on the introduction of Basel striker Cedric Itten for his debut, within six minutes of coming on it was his powerful header that finally broke the deadlock and secured a 1-0 win.
That meant only a draw was required when Switzerland faced Gibraltar on Monday night. Any Swiss jitters were dispelled when Itten tapped in the opening goal. Ruben Vargas made it two and close range efforts from Christian Fassnacht and Loris Benito followed. Gibraltar did force a goal of their own but it was man of the moment Itten who had the final say with an 86th minute header for 6-1.
9. Croatia (+2)
Croatia required only a point against Slovakia to progress in Rijeka. However, against the run of play it was Slovakia who took a shock first half lead against a makeshift Croatian defense. Early in the second half, a powerful run and shot from Nikola Vlasic got Croatia back on level terms. Then on the hour Bruno Petkovic nodded home Luka Modric’s pinpoint corner. Slovakia began to unravel and a red card followed. Any doubt of the result was dispelled by a brilliant finish from Ivan Perisic to seal a 3-1 win.
Then came a home friendly against Georgia with Perisic grabbing the winner. It’s been an erratic campaign from Croatia but the form of Petkovic has helped the team move from the retired Mario Manzukic. Croatia needed a playoff to reach the last World Cup, which turned out pretty well.
8. Germany (Stay)
Despite a mixed campaign Germany’s place in the finals was rarely in doubt. They sealed the deal with a routine win over Belarus. Matthias Ginter’s tidy finish opened the scoring and Ginter’s smart dummy cleared the path for Leon Goretzka to score the second. Toni Kroos slammed home his team’s third and danced his way to a second goal to complete the rout, whilst Manuel Neuer saved a penalty at the other end.
Northern Ireland were the visitors to Frankfurt and took a shock lead through Michael Smith’s long range strike. That jolted Germany into life and Serge Gnabry took his record to 13 goals in 13 games for his country with a brilliant hat trick. Goretzka took his tally for the week to five with a brace, as Julian Brandt rounded off Germany’s best performance of the campaign with an injury time sixth.
7. Spain (Stay)
Having guaranteed qualification last month, Spain boss Robert Moreno went with an experimental side against a woeful Malta side in Cadiz. Alvaro Morata opened the scoring before the injury blighted Santi Cazorla grabbed his first international goal since 2015 just before halftime. In the second half the floodgates opened as Pau Torres, Gerard, Pablo Sarabia and Dani Olmo all scored their first goals for Spain. Jesus Navas added a long range goal late on for a 7-0 win.
Next up were Romania for what turned out to be Moreno’s last game as manager. Spain sent the manager out on a high with Fabian Ruiz scored early with Gerard Moreno netting twice in a 5-0 rout. The next day the Spanish Football Federation confirmed Moreno’s departure and the reappointment of former Barcelona manager Luis Enrique.
6. Netherlands (-3)
Having left it late in Rotterdam last month, Holland again struggled with Northern Ireland this time in Belfast. The Ulstermen showed their intent early on with Jasper Cilessen put under pressure by Corey Evans and John Magennis heading just wide. The Dutch without Memphis Depay settled into their passing game but were grateful to see Northern Ireland skipper blaze a controversial first half penalty high over the bar. With a draw enough too ensure their passage to the finals, Holland played a containing game through possession and sent on defender Nathan Ake to see out a nervous end to the game.
That made the visit of Estonia a routine with early headers from Georginio Wijnaldum and Ake establish an early 2-0 lead. In the second half Wijnaldum completed a fine hat trick to take him to 8 goals in the competition and debutant Myron Boadu completing the scoring in a 5-0 win. Holland slipped behind Germany in the group and seedings for the draw, but after missing out on successive tournaments it’s mission accomplished for Ronald Koeman’s promising side.
5. Portugal (-1)
The defending champions went through easily enough but were made to wait until their final game to confirm their qualification. At home to hapless Lithuania it took just 7 minutes for Cristiano Ronaldo to open his account from the penalty spot, before sealing the win with a brilliantly struck second on 22 minutes. Pizzi, Goncalo Paciencia and Bernardo Silva ran up the score before Ronaldo claimed his hat trick on 65 minutes to complete a 6-0 win.
That left Portugal needing to beat Luxembourg away to guarantee themselves a place at the finals. In a scrappy game, not helped by bobby pitch, a moment of top quality saw Bruno Fernandes fire in the opening goal to earn Portugal the first half lead. Any lingering doubts were settled by Ronaldo whose close range finish ensured a 2-0 win and gave him his 99th goal for Portugal.
4. France (-2)
France’s passage to the finals was confirmed by Turkey’s draw with Iceland before they kicked off against Moldova. It was just as well as the Moldovan’s stunned the World Cup winners with an early goal and it took a highly controversial goal from Raphael Varane for France to regain parity. It wasn’t until the 79th minute when Lucas Digne was hacked down in the box and Olivier Giroud despatched the penalty and French blushes were spared with an unconvincing 2-1 win.
Didier Deschamps decided on a change of system and personnel for the trip to Albania. The new look side performed better with Antoine Griezmann on form and in the goals along with Corentin Tolisso in a 2-0 win. France do have key players to return but this has been an underwhelming campaign from the World Champions.
3. Italy (+3)
A resurgent Italy finished off their campaign in style. Against a talented Bosnia and Herzegovina team, Italy started slowly as Miralem Pjanic orchestrated for Bosnia. However Francesco Acerbi got free in the Bosnian box to give Italy the lead and a fine finish from Lorenzo Insigne made it 2-0 before halftime. Then a flowing counter attack was finished with aplomb by Andrea Belotti’s deft finish in an impressive 3-0 win.
Then it was on to Palermo to seal a perfect qualifying record against Armenia. Ciro Immobile opened the scoring 8 minutes and within a minute Nicolo Zaniolo added a second to open the floodgates. Both forwards went on to bag braces as Italy ran riot with Nicolo Barella scoring the pick of the bunch with Alessio Romagnoli, Jorginho, Riccardo Orsolini and Fedrico Chiesa grabbing goals in a hugely impressive 9-1 win.
2. England (+3)
England became the first nation to play 1000 internationals as they eased into the finals against Montenegro. However, the week wasn’t without problems as Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling got into an altercation with Liverpool defender Joe Gomez when the England squad got together. When they took to Wembley it was another Liverpool man, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain who got England up and running, smashing home the opener. Then it became the Harry Kane show as the captain bagged a first half hat-trick and Ben Chilwell grabbed 3 assists. After the break, Tammy Abraham notched his first senior international goal in a 7-0 rout, their biggest win at Wembley since 1987.
Then came a dead rubber in Kosovo. The game was low temperature but Harry Winks provided a moment of class with a composed first half finish, but Kosovo provided a stern test but couldn’t find a cutting edge whilst Kane became the first England player to score in every game of a qualifying campaign to make it 2-0. Late goals from Marcus Rashford and a first for Mason Mount added gloss to the score late on as England ran out 4-0 winners. Kosovo coach Bernard Challandes claimed after the game England are the best team in Europe, he might be right.
1. Belgium (Stay)
The most impressive team in qualifying cruised through to the finals with a 100% record. Saturday saw the already qualified Rode Duivels face a tough away tie with Russia. It took just 19 minutes for Thorgan Hazard to make the breakthrough and when brother Eden doubled the lead on 33 minutes the game was won. Kevin De Bruyne then ran through the Russian defence to set up Eden for his second before halftime. Derrick Boyata was outstanding throughout in defense and De Bryune sent Romelu Lukaku in to complete the 4-1 rout.
Roberto Martinez switched around his defence to face Cyprus and Belgium fell behind early. Christian Benteke scrambled an equaliser and a goalkeeping error handed De Bryune a goal before the Manchester City man hit a brilliant second. Yannick Carrasco grabbed a fourth before halftime and Benteke rounded off a 6-1 win. Belgium have scored 40 goals in the campaign and whilst their ability to win the big game remains open to debate, they are the form team heading into the finals.
Dropping Out: Northern Ireland, Romania
Featured Image: Associated Press