France stunned as forwards thrive
© AFP

Belarus prolonged France’s FIFA World Cup™ hangover with a widely unforeseen 1-0 away win in their UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying curtain-raiser, while Portugal were also left stunned at home after a last-gasp equaliser earned minnows Cyprus a 4-4 draw. Italy, another side who endured a forgettable campaign in South Africa, were also en route to a miserable evening, but a goal and an assist from Antonio Cassano helped them to a much-needed 2-1 success in Estonia.

The two sides who competed for sport’s biggest prize at Soccer City on 11 July had no such trouble. Two goals from Fernando Torres helped world champions Spain to a 4-0 rout of Liechtenstein, while Klaas-Jan Huntelaar hit a treble as the Netherlands beat San Marino 5-0 on their travels. Another hat-trick scorer as the EURO 2012 preliminaries got underway was Jermain Defoe, whose haul was aided by the invention of Wayne Rooney and inspired England to a 4-0 reverse of Bulgaria at Wembley.

Two men who played fundamental role in the Three Lions’ exit from the recent FIFA World Cup combined to earn Germany a hard-fought victory in Belgium, Thomas Muller setting up Miroslav Klose for the only goal in Brussels and his 53rd in 102 internationals.

We lacked effectiveness in front of goal and in football, the most difficult thing is to score. We will come out of this downward spiral.
France coach Laurent Blanc

Elsewhere, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia and Turkey all won 3-0 away, over Luxembourg, Latvia, Faroe Islands and Kazakhstan respectively, as Northern Ireland and Norway pulled off admirable victories on unfamiliar fields.

Silence in Saint-Denis, Cassano the saviour
France desperately needed to soothe their considerable troubles. And despite a dismal FIFA World Cup, well-publicised problems within the camp, and defeat in Norway in Laurent Blanc’s debut at the reins last month, a home victory in Saint-Denis was the only feasible outcome to a vast majority.

Les Bleus probably deserved just that. They monopolised possession, with the mercurial Florent Malouda at the heart of virtually all their advances. However, France failed to create a clear-cut opportunity on goal, which is something their guests managed not once but twice.

The first fell to Vitali Rodionov just after half-time, but the 26-year-old failed to validate excellent build-up play from Vyacheslav Hleb by dragging his shot wide from close range. When the latter linked up with brother Vyacheslav to set up Syarhey Kislyak, though, the hosts were made to pay, the Dinamo Minsk playmaker thumping the ball into the top corner.

“We lacked effectiveness in front of goal and in football, the most difficult thing is to score,” Blanc lamented. “When you do not succeed in scoring, you have to keep a clean sheet. On one of their rare forays forward, they scored. This is unfortunate because throughout the game we did not deserve to lose, but that’s the way it is.”

France will now head into their game in Bosnia-Herzegovina knowing that failure to collect at least a point would significantly complicate their chances of claiming Group D’s only automatic ticket to EURO 2012. Safet Susic’s side scored thrice in the first 16 minutes in Luxembourg, through Senijad Ibricic, Miralem Pjanic and Edin Dzeko, before taking their foot off the pedal. Romania and Albania drew 1-1 in the pool’s other game.

“There is a match on Tuesday and we will prepare to earn points,” said Blanc. “We will come out of this downward spiral. But we must start to score.”

Cesare Prandelli, who, like Blanc, assumed the reins of demoralised giants following South Africa 2010 and lost his first game in charge, had a more enjoyable evening, though it was not all plain sailing for his Italy team. A blunder by Palermo goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu gifted Sergei Zenjov the opening goal on the half-hour mark, and gave Estonia, positioned 94th on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, hope of an upset of the four-time world champions.

Cassano is an excellent player. In a tight game you always expect him to produce a surprise.
Leonardo Bonucci on his Italy team-mate

Antonio Cassano, the man Prandelli said he will build the new Azzurri around, had other ideas. The 28-year-old Sampdoria forward headed home the equaliser on 60 minutes, and swiftly set up centre-back Leonardo Bonucci’s winner with a sublime flick.

“It's always nice to score, but it was more important to win the game,” reflected Bonucci, before paying tribute to the man who created a rare goal for him. “Cassano is an excellent player. In a tight game you always expect him to produce a surprise.”

Prandelli was delighted to watch his side put three points on the board. “It's very emotional for me,” he said. “I said we could win and we reacted well. We deserved to win the game in the end.”

Away joy for Irish, Cyprus deny Portugal
Serbia and Northern Ireland joined Italy and Estonia, who have played an extra match, on three points at the Group C summit. And while Radomir Antic’s troops winning away to Faroe Islands, 3-0 thanks to goals from Danko Lazovic, Dejan Stankovic and Nikola Zigic, was predictable, Nigel Worthington’s men ending a run of seven matches without a goal - and ten without a win – in Maribor was absolutely not. Slovenia dominated throughout, but the reflexes of 38-year-old goalkeeper Maik Taylor and a 70th-minute strike from 20-year-old substitute Corry Evans secured a 1-0 triumph.

Republic of Ireland won by the same score against Armenia, Kevin Fahey rising from the bench to settle the first-ever meeting between the two sides in the visitors’ favour. "Armenia looked dangerous on the break and at set-pieces, but we managed to keep them at bay,” said the 27-year-old, who was representing St Patrick’s Athletic in his homeland less than two years ago and only made his international debut in March.

“I was instructed to go out and get involved and that is what I did. “It was great to be involved. The ball just bounced for me and I put it way.”

Russia assumed pole position in Group B after a Pavel Pogrebnyak double earned them a 2-0 win away to Andorra, while Slovakia are, along with Republic of Ireland, behind Dick Advocaat’s charges on goal difference after Filip Holosko’s injury-time strike sent Macedonia home with a 1-0 loss.

Portugal were expected to ease their way to the top of Group H, but that is a position occupied by Norway after the section’s first set of fixtures. Egil Olsen’s side came from behind to overcome Iceland 2-1 in Reykjavik, Brede Hangeland equalising with a powerful header before Mohammed Abdellaoue dispatched a firm 75th-minute shot.

Cyprus had scored just twice in their previous eight encounters with Portugal heading into their match in Guimaraes, but it took the guests just 11 minutes to double that tally. Equalisers from Hugo Almeida and then Raul Meireles ensured the hosts went in at the interval on level terms.

Danny headed Portugal ahead soon after the restart but rather than crumble, Angelos Anastasiadis’s men restored parity, Yiannis Okkas racing on to a delightful Constantinos Charalambides through-ball to slot past goalkeeper Eduardo within 60 seconds of his introduction. A Manuel Fernandes piledriver made it 4-3 to A Selecção das Quinas on the hour mark, before Andreas Avraam stooped to nod home a rebound in the 87th minute and snatch Cyprus one of their best results in decades.

Forwards excel for England and Spain
England’s performances have come under the microscope of late, but they followed up an unconvincing 2-1 friendly win over Hungary last month with an assured start to EURO 2012 qualifying. The 4-0 reverse of Bulgaria at Wembley was indebted to the strike partnership of Wayne Rooney and Jermain Defoe, with the latter scoring a hat-trick and the Manchester United talisman signalling his return to form with a hand in all of his country’s goals. Substitute Adam Johnson got the third for Fabio Capello’s side.

“Rooney and Defoe are fantastic players,” said the Italian afterwards. “I am very happy with the forwards... four assists from Rooney and three goals from Defoe. “They were good in every moment. Their movement with and without the ball was excellent.”

I am very happy with the forwards... four assists from Rooney and three goals from Defoe. They were good in every moment.
England coach Fabio Capello

Montenegro sit second in Group G, behind England on goal difference, courtesy of a 1-0 defeat of Wales. Roma forward Mirko Vucinic was the match-winner in Podgorica.

Spain were also 4-0 victors, two brilliantly-taken Fernando Torres goals – the first a canny lob, the second a fierce drive – easing them to a maximum haul away to Liechtenstein. David Villa and David Silva were also on target for Vicente Del Bosque’s team, while the outstanding goalkeeping of Peter Jehle prevented a consierably greater rout. The Barcelona striker is now just one shy of Raul’s all-time scoring record for La Roja.

Lithuania and Scotland played out a 0-0 draw in Group I’s other contest.