Woodburn’s Welsh Dream; Russia-bound Red Devils; Faltering French: The Fallout; FIFA World Cup Qualifying- European Section
Where do we begin? Perhaps with the thought that the International break is over and that actual football is only a handful of days away? The International break will always be seen in the eyes of all many as a side (un)attraction rather than the main event, although the past few days did throw a few points of interest.
The first was on Thursday evening, when, in Group A, a brace from Thomas Lemar helped France dismantle the Netherlands 4-0 at the Stade de France, with Kylian Mbappe also among the goals. It was a performance and scoreline that signalled the intent and talent Les Bleus had in them, and how much of a force they are likely to be in Russia next summer; and it would have been a lot more convincing if they hadn’t played out a goalless draw against minnows Luxembourg 72 hours later. It was the kind of inconsistency and lack of conviction that Didier Deschamps’ side have possessed since before the gaffer’s arrival, and more significantly it cut their lead at the top to just a point, as Sweden are breathing down their necks, although the Swedes would be top right now if they hadn’t lost in Bulgaria on Thursday. The Dutch meanwhile recovered from the four-goal drubbing in healthy fashion, a Davy Propper brace helping them to a 3-1 win over the Bulgarians, to keep their (slim) World Cup hopes alive.
In Group D, Serbia went out on their own as the leaders thanks to two wins from two, the most crucial of them in the Republic of Ireland on Tuesday, Aleksandar Kolarov scoring the only goal in that game, while Serbian defender Nikola Maksimovic got sent off. That result meant the Irish only took one point from their two games, the loss following a disappointing 1-1 draw against Georgia three days before, and Martin O’Neill’s side have gone from joint-top to out of second position entirely. That spot is now occupied by European championship semi-finalists Wales, Chris Coleman’s team seeing off Austria on Saturday thanks to a debut goal from young Liverpool forward Ben Woodburn, before a 2-0 win in Moldova on Tuesday. As for the Austrians, their hopes of making the World Cup are dead in the water.
In Group H, Belgium became the first-past-the-post of all European teams, the Red Devils booking their place in Russia after two wins, the second of which coming crucially away at one of the chasing pack, Greece, even if the first one is likely to be the highlight, Thomas Meunier scoring a hatrick as Roberto Martinez’s team hit nine past Gibraltar without reply. Their cause was also helped by second-placed Bosnia’s loss in Cyprus, Mehmed Bazdarevic’s side throwing away a two-goal lead in the last 25 minutes to fatally lose ground on the leaders.
Northern Ireland guaranteed themselves of at least second spot in Group C, after wins against San Marino and the Czech Republic. The Czechs faint hopes completely evaporated during this break, two defeats- a late goal conceded at home to Germany on Friday, before the loss to the Irish- killing off their chances. Germany, meanwhile, maintained their 100% record with victories over the Czech (2-1) and Norway (6-0).
Elsewhere: England maintained their grip on top spot in Group F with two wins, the most significant against fellow qualification contenders Slovakia, which will also be remembered for Dele Alli’s middle-finger incident; Switzerland also kept up their perfect record following respective 3-0 wins over Andorra and Latvia in Group B; while in Group E Denmark hit four past Poland (it’s more surprising than it sounds) to close the gap on their opponents at the top to three points; and Spain- thanks to an Isco masterclass- saw off Italy 3-0 on Saturday, before scoring eight against Liechtenstein three days after, in Group G.
Group A: Results
August 31: Bulgaria 3-2 Sweden; France 4-0 Netherlands; Luxembourg 1-0 Belarus
September 3: France 0-0 Luxembourg; Belarus 0-4 Sweden; Netherlands 3-1 Bulgaria
Group B: Results
August 31: Hungary 3-1 Latvia; Portugal 5-1 Faroe Islands; Switzerland 3-0 Andorra
September 3: Hungary 0-1 Portugal; Latvia 0-3 Switzerland; Faroe Islands 1-0 Andorra
Faroe Islands- 8
Group C: Results
September 1: Czech Republic 1-2 Germany; Norway 2-0 Azerbaijan; San Marino 0-3 Northern Ireland
September 4: Azerbaijan 5-1 San Marino; Germany 6-0 Norway; Northern Ireland 2-0 Czech Republic
Northern Ireland- 19
Czech Republic- 9
San Marino- 0
Group D: Results
September 2: Serbia 3-0 Moldova; Georgia 1-1 Ireland; Wales 1-0 Austria
September 5: Ireland 0-1 Serbia; Austria 1-1 Georgia; Moldova 0-2 Wales
Group E: Results
September 1: Denmark 4-0 Poland; Romania 1-0 Armenia; Kazakhstan 0-3 Montenegro
September 4: Armenia 1-4 Denmark; Montenegro 1-0 Romania; Poland 3-0 Kazakhstan
Group F: Results
September 1: Lithuania 0-3 Scotland; Malta 0-4 England; Slovakia 1-0 Slovenia
September 4: England 2-1 Slovakia; Scotland 4-0 Malta; Slovenia 4-0 Lithuania
Group G: Results
September 2: Albania 2-0 Liechtenstein; Israel 0-1 Macedonia; Spain 3-0 Italy
September 4: Italy 1-0 Israel; Liechtenstein 0-8 Spain; Macedonia 1-1 Albania
Group H: Results
August 31: Belgium 9-0 Gibraltar; Cyprus 3-2 Bosnia; Greece 0-0 Estonia
September 3: Estonia 1-0 Cyprus; Greece 1-2 Belgium; Gibraltar 0-4 Bosnia
Group I: Results
September 2: Croatia 1-0 Kosovo; Finland 1-0 Iceland; Ukraine 2-0 Turkey
September 5: Iceland 2-0 Ukraine; Kosovo 0-1 Finland; Turkey 1-0 Croatia