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International football returned from its four-month hibernation last week as qualifying for the European Championships began. Two qualifying berths per group are available for next summers finals, with a further four places on offer via the playoffs, whose participants will be decided on last autumn’s Nations League performances. We have seen some shockers, a thriller in Amsterdam, an astonishing comeback, and some impressive statements of intent for the finals.
24. Macedonia (NE)
One of Europe’s least likely success stories began when Macedonia won their Nations League group in the autumn, guaranteeing themselves a place in the European Championship playoffs. From there, they will compete with Georgia, Belarus and Kosovo. However, they may not need that playoff berth after Leeds winger Ezgjan Alioski got them off the mark in an opening night 3-1 win over Latvia. They followed that up with a hard-earned draw in Slovenia to leave Macedonia joint second in Group G. With 35-year old Goran Pandev still leading the line and Sporting Lisbon’s Stefan Ristovski marshaling the defence, Macedonia might surprise a few in an open-looking Group G.
23. Israel (NE)
Israel haven’t qualified for a major tournament since 1970, but they’ve made a strong start thanks to the goal-scoring exploits of Eran Zahavi. First Zahavi grabbed the equalizer in a 1-1 draw with Slovenia before a brilliant hat trick downed Austria 4-2 in Haifa. Israel lack established stars, but benefit from a strong club connection from Maccabi Tel Aviv. They currently sit joint second with Macedonia in Group G and next face leaders Poland in Warsaw. Israel currently rank a lowly 92nd in FIFA’s rankings, and their recent history has been one of third and fourth-placed group finishes. However, in an open group, they look to have their best chance ever of securing a place at the European Championships.
22. Turkey (NE)
It has been a quiet few years for Turkey, having only made one major tournament since that dramatic run to the semifinals of Euro 2008. However, their campaign got off to an impressive start with a 2-0 away win in Albania. They followed that win up with a 4-0 hiding of Moldova, as Cenk Tosun put his poor Everton form aside to score twice. This squad isn’t of the standard we saw from Turkey in their golden period of 2000-2008. However, Hakan Calhangolu can provide some creativity in midfield and both Yilmaz and Tosun have credible strike rates at the international level. Turkey look set to battle for second place in Group H against Iceland; the team that beat them to World Cup qualification two years ago.
21. Northern Ireland (NE)
It has been a tough season for Michael O’Neill’s side, drawn into Group C with Germany and Holland, while their poor Nations League campaign makes a playoff berth unlikely. However, Northern Ireland got their qualifying campaign off to a perfect start with back-to-back home wins. It is a huge ask to progress from this group, but grabbing the early lead will give O’Neill’s men confidence.
20. Norway (Stay)
Points-wise, it wasn’t a great start to qualifying for Norway, but that has to be weighted against the tough fixtures and dramatic finish comeback they staged. The team started against Spain and were narrowly beaten by Sergio Ramos’ second half penalty. The real drama came in Oslo, where Norway took a 2-0 lead in the Scandinavian derby with Sweden. The Swedes fought back to seemingly grab the 3-2 win in injury time, however, substitute Ola Kamara got his head to a 97th minute corner to earn Norway’s first point of qualification. Given Sweden’s first two goals came from a rebound via a saved penalty and a deflected own goal, Norway probably were due a bit of luck at the death. With a playoff spot guaranteed via their success in the Nations League, hope is building that Norway can make their first major finals since Euro 2000.
19. Iceland (-2)
Iceland managed to stop their six-match losing streak with a comfortable 2-0 win over Andorra. However, a 4-0 hammering from France in Saint-Denis will have sent confidence plummeting. It is worth remembering that it was France who ended Iceland’s glorious run at Euro 2016 with a 5-2 thrashing. Group H will be comfortably won by France, making it a fight for the second qualification spot. With that, June’s home qualifiers against Albania and Turkey paramount to Iceland’s hopes of making it to a third straight finals.
18. Serbia (Stay)
A pair of tough fixtures for Serbia brought a pair of creditable draws. Their friendly with Germany, a respectable 1-1 draw, was marred by Milan Pavkov’s x-rated challenge on Leroy Sane. Away to Portugal, Ajax Champions League hero Dusan Tadic gave Serbia an early lead from the penalty spot. Portugal equalized before halftime, but Serbia withstood Portugal’s barrage to claim a handy point. This was all managed with Nemanja Matic and Alexsandar Kolorov missing through injury and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic starting on the bench. Group B promises to be a long tough fight between Portugal, Serbia and Ukraine, as all three won their Nations League groups. Therefore, the loser at least get a second chance in the playoffs.
17. Wales (+2)
The week for Wales started with an an unconvincing performance against Trinidad and Tobago, but they grabbed the win thanks to Ben Woodburn’s late strike. Against Slovakia, Swansea winger Daniel James lashed home on his competitive debut to hand Wales a crucial 1-0 win. This is a team still dependent on star men Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, but two clean sheets answer some of the questions of their suspect defence.
16. Ukraine (Stay)
Based on results, it has been an excellent week for Ukraine. However, in Luxembourg, they fell behind early and despite quickly drawing level seemed set for an embarrassing draw, Luxembourg scored an own goal to hand Ukraine the points. Getting Andriy Yarmalenko back should help them find a cutting edge in attack to go with their defensive discipline. Ukraine inevitably have large contingents from both Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk in the squad, but in Yarmalenko’s absence, they lack star quality. Having picked up four points this week, Ukraine will be confident of following up promotion to Nations League A with qualification for Euro 2020.
15. Russia (-1)
Despite losing a tough opener away to Belgium, Russia have the early initiative in securing a second spot in Group I. This was thanks to Denis Cheryshev’s double strike in a 4-0 win in Kazakhstan, with another World Cup hero in Artem Dzyuba grabbing a third. After the World Cup, Russia need to keep their momentum going. Next on their schedule are back-to-back home games against San Marino and Cyprus. With qualification rivals Scotland suffering a disastrous start and facing a trip to Belgium in June, Russia should build a commanding position in the group.
14. Bosnia & Herzegovina (-1)
Bosnia continued their fine season with four points to open their Group J campaign. Goals from midfielders Rade Krunic and Deni Milosevic set up a 2-1 win over Armenia in Sarajevo. They seemed to be cruising to a second home win when Juventus’ Miralem Pjanic handed them an early 2-0 lead against Greece. However, the Greeks fought back in the second half to salvage a draw. Next up, Bosnia visit Finland while Greece play Italy. The Bosnians may live to regret losing that two-goal lead, but they do have the backstop of a secured playoff berth.
13. Poland (+2)
Poland got the start to 2019 they needed after a terrible 2018 campaign. First, Krzysztof Piatek came off the bench to secure a 1-0 away win over Austria. From there, Robert Lewandowski showed he is still the main man, striking the decisive goal in a 2-0 win over Latvia. Combining Lewandowski and Piatek in the same attack could be Poland’s biggest challenge in this campaign. Most importantly, they have stopped the rot after an underwhelming World Cup and Nations League relegation.
12. Sweden (Stay)
Sweden showed yet again what the likes of Italy, Holland and Switzerland have all found to their cost, as they are a tough side to beat. They began their Group F campaign with a 2-1 win over Romania, with Viktor Claesson hitting the killer second goal. Short two key defenders in Victor Lindelof and Pontus Jansson, Sweden found themselves down 2-0 in Norway. However, a comeback saw Robin Quaison grab what appeared to be the winner before Norway’s last gasp equalizer. Mainz forward Quaison, who scored in both games, could prove as a key player in tandem with veteran striker Marcus Berg. Sweden haven’t missed a European Championship finals since 1996, and they don’t look like surrendering that record now.
11. Croatia (-3)
Croatia have a tendency to make heavy weather of qualifying, and it seems Euro 2020 will follow the same trend. They fell behind early to Azerbaijan, but came back to win thanks to Andrej Kramaric. It seemed Croatia had learned from their slow start when Ante Rebic gave them an early lead against Hungary, only to see the Hungarians launch a comeback of their own and claim a 2-1 win. Their qualifying struggles have often been put down to their small player pool, but this week, they had World Cup stars in Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic all present and correct.
10. Italy (Stay)
Roberto Mancini’s rebuilding of ‘Gil Azzurri’ continues at a steady pace. Italy began their Group J campaign by safely negotiating the potential banana skin of Finland, thanks to midfielder Nicolo Barella’s early goal and Moise Kean’s second half strike. Next came the open goal of a home match against Liechtenstein, who were dispatched 6-0. In the process, Kean became Italy’s youngest goalscorer for 60 years against Finland, while 36-year old Fabio Quagliarella’s double from the penalty spot against Lichtenstein made him their oldest scorer ever. Finding the right combination in attack is Mancini’s biggest challenge ahead of the finals, but Italy have more than enough to qualify.
9. Denmark (Stay)
The 1992 Champions started the week with a friendly draw against Kosovo. When the serious business of qualification got under way, they found themselves 3-0 down to Switzerland with just six minutes to go in Basel. Mathias Jorgensen started the comeback with a header, and three minutes later, Christian Gytkjaer scored a well-worked second. Just three minutes into injury time, defender Henrik Dalsgaard got the final touch in a panicked box to cap a 3-3 draw. Next up, Denmark host Ireland for their fifth competitive meeting in the last two seasons.
8. Holland (-2)
The Dutch managed to exorcise the ghosts of those blown qualifying campaigns for Euro 2016 and Russia 2018, but also received a reminder that they are still a work in progress. Memphis Depay grabbed a brace in a 4-0 trouncing of Belarus to get qualifying off to a winning start. However, Germany proved a tougher nut to crack, and the Dutch found themselves at 2-0 after Serge Gnabry made Virgil Van Dijk appear ordinary. Despite the setback, Ronald Koeman’s team are moving in a positive direction and should qualify when they reconvene in September.
7. Germany (+4)
Germany didn’t start the week well after needing Leon Goretzka’s goal to salvage a friendly draw against Serbia. However, when qualification kicked off, Germany clicked back into gear. In the best game of the round, Germany took a 2-0 lead against Holland in Amsterdam. Despite a second half Dutch comeback effort, Hoffenheim’s Nico Schulz grabbed a late winner for a morale-boosting win. Germany still have plenty of problems with an uncertain looking defence, but Low does appear to be steering the ship into calmer waters.
6. Switzerland (-1)
Switzerland appeared to be riding the momentum of November’s 5-2 thrashing of Belgium through qualification up until those calamitous nine minutes against Denmark. The week started with Steven Zuber’s tidy finish setting Switzerland on their way to a 2-0 win in Georgia. Then at home to Denmark, Atalanta’s Remo Freuler gave Switzerland a fine start with a half volley and Granit Xhaka’s spectacular strike appeared to seal the points. But Switzerland collapsed to three late goals and ended up with a solitary point. Switzerland were without star man Xherdan Shaqiri and November’s hat trick hero Haris Serferovic, but this a blow to Switzerland ahead of June’s Nations League Finals.
5. Spain (+2)
Sergio Ramos’ audacious penalty handed his country a hard-earned 2-1 win over Norway to get their campaign off to a winning start. Alvaro Morata is rehabilitating his career at Atletico Madrid after a terrible spell with Chelsea and struck both goals in a routine 2-0 win over Malta. This is a team still in transition, but one with the talent to be a serious contender next summer.
4. Portugal (-3)
With Cristiano Ronaldo returning to the fold, this was supposed to be a triumphant week for Portugal. However, Ukraine and Serbia didn’t read the script. First, Ukraine goalkeeper Andrej Pyatov frustrated Ronaldo and company into a 0-0 draw in Lisbon. Portugal then fell behind to Serbia before Danilo Pereira rescued a point. To make matters worse, Ronaldo went off early with a hamstring injury. It all leaves Portugal third in one of the tougher qualifying groups, with tricky return trips to Ukraine and Serbia still to come. Their successful Nations League campaign means Portugal are at least guaranteed a playoff spot should they need it, but need to rediscover the fluidity with which they played in the autumn.
3. Belgium (+1)
After the shock of their 5-2 hiding from the Swiss last autumn, Belgium got back on the horse with a commanding 3-1 win over Russia. Eden Hazard was again in majestic form, but his former Chelsea teammate Thibaut Courtois looked far less assured. Then it was off to Cyprus for a routine 2-0 win, with Hazard again opening the scoring. Youri Tielmanns impressed in midfield, and although the Belgians were below their best, they were missing Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku.
2. England (+1)
There is little doubt England were the team of the week. A team previously synonymous with doing just enough in qualifying matches thrashed the Czech Republic 5-0 at Wembley, with Raheem Sterling claiming a first international hat trick. England then recovered from falling behind early in Montenegro to record a thumping 5-1 win, with Ross Barkley in sensational form. Worryingly for everyone else, England keep getting better and younger as time goes on. This time, Gareth Southgate handed debuts to 20-year old Declan Rice and Callum Hudson-Odoi.
1. France (+1)
The World Champions opened their qualifying campaign with two wins and eight goals to get back on track after their Nations League disappointment. Striking trio Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud were all on target in an easy 4-1 win in Moldova. Second seeds Iceland were then dispatched 4-0 in Paris, as Giroud pushed himself into third place on France’s all-time goal scoring chart. France remain the bookmakers favorites to win Euro 2020, and their combination of defensive strength, midfield power and dynamic forward play make them the team to beat.
Dropping out: Scotland, Czech Republic, Austria, Finland
Picture Credits: The Straits Time, 90min.com, Reuters, Scorenga, WalesOnline