The new international season got under way last week with Europe’s national teams vying for a place at next summer’s European Championship finals. With two places available from each of Europe’s ten qualifying groups and 4 playoff spots from last season’s Nations League available, qualification has passed the half way mark, nobody is yet assured of their place.
Europe’s newest team are on track to qualify for the finals at the first time attempt. Kosovo entered the week on a 14 game unbeaten run and scored the best win in their brief history with a 2-1 win over Czech Republic in Pristina, with fullback Mergim Vojvoda clipping home the winner. They then faced Group A leaders England and were gifted the early lead when Valon Berisha pounced after a loose pass. But Kosovo were punished for their poor defending by 5 first half England strikes. Kosovo continued to push and a swift counter attack saw Berisha score a fine second and a Vedat Muriqi penalty made the final score a credible 3-5 defeat.
In both games Kosovo attacked with skill and speed but were wide open at the back. They are currently third in the group but are well placed to overhaul the second placed Czech’s who they’ll face again in November.
Romania stayed in contention in contention Group F. A narrow defeat to Spain in Bucharest saw the home-side push their illustrious guests particularly after they were reduced to 10 men but Romania couldn’t get level. Romania then dominated Malta but struggled to break down a stubborn Maltese defence. George Puskas powered home a header from a corner early in the second half and kept Romania in group contention.
After a good showing at the Euro Under 21s this summer Romania are showing flashes of their 1990’s heyday, with Ianis Hagi showing he’s a chip off Georghe’s block. Qualification seems to rest on November’s clash with Sweden, but after a poor Nations League campaign there’s unlikely to be a second chance via the playoffs.
22. Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland lost their 100% record in Group C and now face a tough road to qualify for the finals. Germany were the visitors at Windsor Park and Northern Ireland’s vigour seemed to unsettle the Germans with Conor Washington spurning two gilt edged first half chances to take the lead. However Germany’s class told and in the second half Bradley Peacock-Farrell was finally beaten as Germany claimed a crucial 2-0 win. Northern Ireland are still second in the group but their last three games are a double header with Holland and a trip to Frankfurt to again face Germany.
Austria got their campaign back on track with a brace from Marko Arnautovic and a screamer from Marcel Sabitzer setting them on their way to a 6-0 trouncing of hapless Latvia. Austria then won a credible point away against group leaders Poland, with Arnautovic going close and the Austrian defence holding firm. Poland should win Group G, but with just two points separating four teams and Austria in third, their return to form looks well timed.
Europe’s biggest risers of the week were Slovenia. At home against Group G favourites Poland, the Slovenians took a shock lead when Aljaz Struna swept home from a corner. Then striker Andrea Sporar broke away and stroked in a fine second to hand Slovenia a surprise 2-0 win. The second part of a home double header saw the visit of Israel. A swift counter saw Josip Ilicic play in Benjamin Verbic to slot home. However Israel fought back to leave Slovenia trailing 2-1 in the second half before Roman Bezjak equalised and Verbic smashed home a header in injury time to secure a 3-2 win.
Aside from Atletico Madrid’s Jan Oblak, this a side short on stars but they don’t concede many and can hit on the counter. In a tight group next month’s clashes with North Macedonia and Austria will be pivotal to Slovenian hopes.
Euro 2016’s Thunder Gods are looking distinctly mortal in 2019. The week started well with an easy 3-0 win over Moldova. Kolbeinn Sigthorsson opened the scoring with a tidy finish and Birkir Bjarnsson making sure of the win with a trademark Iceland set piece. Things then went horribly wrong in Albania, Iceland twice went behind but came back thanks to goals from Gylfi Sigurdsson and Sigthorsson. But a sumptuous solo goal from Odise Roshi saw Albania retake the lead and an injury time strike saw Iceland go down 4-2. It leaves Iceland 3 points behind France & Turkey in Group H and with no guarantee of a playoff berth. Next up are France in Reykjavik, Iceland cannot afford to lose.
18. Republic of Ireland
Ireland manager Mick McCarthy insisted before kick off he’d take a point at home against Group D favourites Switzerland. Thanks to David McGoldrick’s first goal for his country that’s exactly what Ireland got. McCarthy’s side have adopted a familiar ethos of being tough to play against, however they do lack incision in the final third.
Ireland remain unbeaten in and top of Group D, but their comparatively poor goal difference could yet count against them in a tight group. Next up it’s a tricky away trip to Georgia with a win essential ahead of those vital games with Denmark and Switzerland.
After their stunning win over France in June, hosting Andorra should have been an easy 3 points for Turkey. But Turkey struggled to break down the minnows and needed Ozan Tufan’s 89th minute header to secure an edgy 1-0 win. Things were then much more comfortable in Moldova. Cenk Tosun put his Everton frustrations behind him to open the scoring, with Fenerbache’s Deniz Turuc then grabbing his first international goal as Turkey saw out a comfortable 4-0 win.
Iceland’s slip up in Albania means Turkey remain top in a three horse race to qualify from Group H. The visit of Albania next month offers Turkey the chance to consolidate their lead before the critical clash with France and then Iceland’s visit to Istanbul.
Finland are edging closer to their first major finals appearance. A penalty from Norwich striker Teemu Pukki secured a critical 1-0 win over Greece to maintain second place in Group J. Then came a tough test against runaway group leaders Italy and another Pukki strike from the penalty spot looked to have earned the Fins a draw, before a late handball handed Italy a penalty and 2-1 win.
Finland are incredibly resolute in defence having conceded just 4 goals in this campaign, with Pukki providing some incision in attack with 5 goals. Finland are second in Group J with a 3 point lead over third placed Armenia. Next up is a tough away tie in Bosnia before a crunch home game with Armenia.
After a poor defeat in Spain, Sweden needed to consolidate second place in Group F. They set to that task by thrashing the Faroe Island thanks to a quick fire double from young winger Alexander Isak, with Victor Lindelof adding a fine third after just 23 minutes. Then came the Scandinavian derby against Norway and things didn’t start well with Norway taking the lead on the stroke of half time. Emile Forsberg equalised with a drive into the left hand corner, but Sweden couldn’t force a winner and it ended honours even in Solna. Sweden maintain a 1 point lead over third placed Romania but do face the tricky visit of Spain in October.
A mixed week for Denmark. Unsurprisingly they hammered minnows Gibraltar 6-0, taking just 6 minutes to open the scoring through Robert Skov with Christian Gytkjaer scoring twice in the closing stages. Then came a frustrating draw in Tblisi as the Danes struggled to breakthrough a stubborn Georgia defence, with Martin Braithwaite twice denied by the goalkeeper.
Next up it’s a home tie with group favourites Switzerland followed by the open goal of a return match with Gibraltar. Denmark will finish their campaign against Ireland in Dublin, the last time they went there needing a result was the 2018 World Cup qualifiers with Christian Eriksen bagging a hat trick as the Irish were routed.
A disappointing goalless week for Poland. After winning their first four qualifiers, Poland were surprisingly beaten 2-0 in Slovenia. Then came a frustrating night at home against Austria. Star man Robert Lewandowski missed numerous chances as Poland were held 0-0. Poland still hold a 2 point lead at the top of Group G and they will expect to beat bottom of the table Latvia and win at home against North Macedonia next month. In a five way fight for qualification that should be enough for Poland to progress.
Russia are almost qualified thanks to an inspired comeback against Scotland. Having gone behind early, Artem Dzyuba’s tidy finish got Russia level. An own goal put Russia ahead and only the excellence of Scottish ‘keeper David Marshall prevented a bigger margin of victory. On Monday night in Kalingrad the Russians struggled to break through a stubborn Kazakhstan side, until Mario Fernandes popped up in the 89th minute to head the Russians to a narrow win. Russia have an 8 point lead on third placed Cyprus with 4 to play, a win over Scotland in Moscow next month should seal Russia’s place in the finals.
A very erratic week for Croatia. Goals at the end of the first half and the start of the second from Nikola Vlasic and Ivan Perisic to set Croatia on their way to an impressive win over Slovakia, with Bruno Petkovic adding a sublime solo goal to add polish to the 4-0 victory. It seemed Croatia were finally stamping their authority on Group E ahead of a routine looking tie with Azerbaijan. Luka Modric gave Croatia an early lead from the penalty spot. But despite dominating the game Croatia couldn’t add a second and Azerbaijan substitute Tamkin Khalilzade struck an equaliser and his team had their first point of the campaign.
Group E remains unpredictable with Croatia holding a single point lead over Slovakia and Hungary with Wales a further 3 points back. Croatia can seal their place at the finals with wins over Hungary at home and Wales away next month, but with no guarantee of a playoff place Croatia cannot afford any more slip ups.
The Group B leaders are unbeaten and on a roll. With the Under 20 World Cup success this summer and promotion to Nations League A in the bag, Ukraine edged close to the finals this week. Manchester City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko struck early in Lithuania to settle any nerves and Marlos adding a second before half time. Ruslan Malinovskyi added a third in the second half to secure a simple 3-0 win.
Zinchenko was on target again as Ukraine fought from 2 down to draw a friendly with Nigeria on Tuesday night. With a 6 point lead over third placed Serbia, Ukraine could seal their finals place next month. With Andrey Yarmalenko back to full fitness and a promising generation emerging, Ukraine will be looking for a strong showing next summer.
The Swiss again let the lead slip again, this time against Ireland. Fabian Schar appeared to have secured the win in Dublin when he finished off a flowing passing move. But a late Irish equaliser brought back unpleasant memories of the Swiss letting a 3-0 slip against Denmark earlier in the campaign. Switzerland then sealed an easy home with over Gibraltar with 3 goals in 8 minutes at the end of the first half.
Switzerland are playing catch up in Group D after their Nations League exploits in June. October sees the return matches with Denmark and Ireland, avoiding defeat in both should put Switzerland in a strong position, with easier fixtures Georgia at home and Gibraltar away in November.
A terrible night in Hamburg for Joachim Low as Germany crashed to a 4-2 loss to old rivals Holland. It started well with Serge Gnabry giving the hosts an early lead, but Germany’s new look defence endured a night to forget with Jonathan Tah scoring an own goal and Matthias Ginter enduring a torrid game.
German nerves were then evident on Monday night as Toni Kroos’ early mistake almost let in Northern Ireland. The in form Marcel Halstenberg’s thunderbolt gave Germany the advantage early in the second half with Gnabry grabbing his second goal of the week to ensure a 2-0 win. Germany lead Group C and 7 points from their remaining 3 games will ensure qualification.
Italy needed late goals from Andrea Belotti and Lorenzo Pellegrini to avoid embarrassment against 10 man Armenia. Then came a top of the table clash with Finland in Tampere. Ciro Immobile headed in on the hour to give Italy the lead, but Italy conceded a penalty to allow Finland back in. But 7 minutes later a handball in the Finnish box gave Italy a penalty and Jorginho converted the spot kick to maintain Italy’s 100% record. With Lorenzo Insigne and Giorgio Chiellini leading a lengthy injury list, Mancini will relieved that his side avoided a slip up and took a huge step to the finals.
Spain maintained their 100% record as Sergio Ramos’ first half penalty and Pace Alcacer’s strike early in the second half sending them on their way to a 2-1 win in Romania. Rodrigo then grabbed a brace to set them on their way to an easy win over the Faroe Islands with Alcacer’s injury time double adding some gloss to a 4-0 win. Spain have a comfortable 7 point cushion in Group F ahead of October’s away games to Sweden and Norway.
There’s little doubt Spain will qualify and in Rodrigo and Alcacer they have found a cutting edge to their attack, but their vulnerability in the centre of defence needs testing against top class opposition for Spain to be considered amongst the tournament favourites.
Holland’s produced their best performance since the 2014 World Cup with a stunning 4-2 win over Germany. Having gone a goal down early, the Dutch hit back with 4 goals in 32 second half minutes. PSV striker Donyell Malen grabbed the decisive goal on his debut and a fine throughball from Memphis Depay found Giorgio Wijnaldum to seal a famous win.
Next up was a trip to Talin to face Estonia. Veteran forward Ryan Babel grabbed an early double to ensure the win with Depay marking his 50th cap with a goal and Wijnaldum again scoring late in a 4-0 win. Holland remain third in Group C but with a game in hand, they have the chance to overtake Northern Ireland when the two clash in Rotterdam next month.
Played 4, won 4, 19 goals scored and 3 terrible defensive blunders tell the story of England’s campaign to date. England were always likely to overpower Bulgaria at Wembley and it only took 24 minutes for Harry Kane to open the floodgates with a simple finish, Kane then hit 2 penalties to complete his hat trick and turned provider for Raheem Sterling to round off a 4-0 win.
On Tuesday night came an historic first meeting with Kosovo and Michael Keane’s awful error gifted Kosovo the first minute lead. Then Sterling took over scoring the next and laying on 3 assists, with Jadon Sancho scoring his first 2 England goals to make it 5-1 at halftime. Then two more poor defensive errors let Kosovo back into the game that ended in a bizarre 5-3 win. Manager Gareth Southgate fumed at his side’s defending but he does have other options, the potency of their attack make England a serious contender but the defending will need to improve to go if they are to go all the way.
No Pogba, No Mbappe, but Albania and Andorra were never likely to cause France a problem. After their abysmal performance against Turkey, the French got back on track at the State De France with Kingsley Coman filling in for Mbappe with 2 goals agains Albania. The promising Jonathan Ikone came off the bench to add some gloss to the score with his first goal for his country in a 4-1 win. Then came the routine matter of dispatching Andorra, with France making 29 attempts on goal but netting just 3 with Coman again adding another in a 3-0 success.
France now have some breathing space in Group H thanks to Iceland’s slip up. October’s trip to Iceland and return match with Turkey now provide Didier Deschamps’ World Champions the chance to send out a statement of intent ahead of the finals.
The reigning European champions finally ignited their qualification campaign. A scrappy goal from William Carvahlo and a brilliant moment of skill from Gonçalo Guedes set Portugal on their way to an entertaining 4-2 win over Serbia. Then in Lithuania the main man took over proceedings, Cristiano Ronaldo hit 4 goals in a 5-1 rout.
It takes Ronaldo to 93 international goals and just 16 short of the world record in international football. Portugal sit second in Group B with a game in hand on third placed Serbia. Portugal’s attacking play has been exceptional of late but their defence has been unusually generous, Fernando Santos will need to fix the later before the summer.
The World’s top ranked side made it six from six in qualifying. Victory over the world’s bottom ranked side was predictably straight forward if not empathetic with Michy Batschuayi scoring twice as Belgium beat San Marino 4-0. Then it was on to Hampden Park and the Kevin De Bruyne show. The Manchester City star transferred his club form onto the international stage as he cut Scotland to ribbons with three assists before half time, then grabbing one for himself to round off a 4-0 success. With Romelu Lukaku showing signs of his best form at Inter Milan and De Bruyne back to full fitness, Belgium are justifiable favourites to raise the European Championship trophy in July.
Featured Image: BBC