With varying levels of ease, almost of all of Europe’s heavyweights earned positive results on Friday, during the first round of qualifying matches for UEFA EURO 2012 in Poland/Ukraine. Only France, beaten 1-0 at home by Belarus, appeared to still be suffering from a hangover caused by the events in South Africa over the summer.
Both FIFA World Cup™ finalists continued to impress, with Spain seeing off Liechtenstein 4-0 and the Netherlands putting five unanswered goals past San Marino. And while England put in a reassuring performance in their 4-0 win over Bulgaria, Italy and Germany were made to work hard for their 2-1 and 1-0 away victories over Estonia and Belgium respectively.
Despite taking an early lead, England found Bulgaria a difficult side to break down for large parts of the match, but the home team’s dominance eventually bore fruit in the final minutes. Jermain Defoe was in sparkling form, scoring his first international hat-trick and linking well with an equally impressive Wayne Rooney, who set up two of Defoe’s goals and another for Adam Johnson. Following a first half with little end product, England stepped up the pace after the break, leaving the Bulgarians in their wake. The useful victory aside, England manager Fabio Capello will also have noted the fine performance of Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart, who pulled off a series of top-class saves at key times in the game. Could it be that, at long last, the Three Lions have found a worthy successor to David Seaman?
In Group A, Turkey strolled to a 3-0 victory in Kazakhstan, due in part to two goals in two minutes from Arda Turan and Hamit Altintop just before the half-hour mark. Meanwhile Germany, despite missing several first-team regulars, ground out a hard-fought 1-0 victory in Belgium, the indefatigable Miroslav Klose scoring the only goal of the game in the second half.
Russia’s opening Group B match versus Andorra saw Pavel Pogrebniak’s brace ensure a solid if unspectacular 2-0 success for the pool favourites, while the Republic of Ireland picked up three precious points in Armenia, Keith Fahey’s first goal for his country securing the 1-0 win. In a group that promises to be closely contested, Filip Holosko’s injury-time goal in Slovakia’s 1-0 victory over FYR Macedonia may well turn out to be crucial in the long run.
In Group C, Italy were a goal down at half-time in Estonia after Sergei Zenjov had capitalised on an error by Italy keeper Salvatore Sirigu to give the home side the lead, only for La Nazionale to turn the match on its head in a three-minute second-half spell, scoring twice from corners. The livewire Antonio Cassano was involved in both, first grabbing the equaliser with a downward header, before back-heeling the ball to Leonardo Bonucci, who dispatched what would turn out to be the winner. The 2-1 result represents the 2006 world champions’ first victory of the calendar year.
Serbia will fancy their chances in this group, and they made light work of the Faroe Islands, with Danko Lazovic, Dejan Stankovic and Nikola Zigic all hitting the target in a 3-0 triumph. But Northern Ireland, three points to the good after Corry Evans’ goal saw off Slovenia 1-0 in Maribor, are clearly not there to make up the numbers, and could cause the Italians and Serbians considerable trouble down the line.
France’s inability to create chances, a constant complaint over the last few months, once again let them down in their Group D clash with Belarus. Laurent Blanc’s revamped team dominated possession without ever putting their opponents’ defence under real, sustained pressure. Les Bleus’ lack of cutting edge was punished towards the end of the match, with Sergei Kislyak’s goal delivering victory to the visitors. The French will need to bounce back quickly on Tuesday in Sarajevo if they are to avoid a fifth defeat on the trot.
France’s upcoming opponents Bosnia-Herzegovina endured no such problems in their match with Luxembourg, finishing comfortable 3-0 victors on the night. All of the goals – scored by Senijad Ibricic, Miralem Pjanic and Edin Dzeko – came in a 16-minute spell in the first half. In the group’s other match, Albania came away from Romania with an encouraging 1-1 draw, Gjergj Muzaka grabbing the equaliser three minutes from full time.
The two teams expected to compete for qualification from Group E both got their campaigns off to a winning start. Against Hungary, Sweden had to wait until the second half before making the breakthrough, but eventually ran out 2-0 winners thanks to a brace from AZ Alkmaar’s versatile midfielder-cum-forward Pontus Wernbloom. The Netherlands had an easier ride, beating San Marino 5-0 in a match that saw a resurgent Klaas-Jan Huntelaar score a hat-trick and the returning Ruud van Nistelrooy notch a late fifth. The final fixture did produce a surprise, however, as Moldova benefitted from the first-half dismissal of Sami Hyypia to defeat Finland 2-0.
In Group F, Croatia turned on the style in a 3-0 win away to Latvia, while Greece had to wait until midway through the second half before finding an equaliser in their 1-1 draw with an impressive Georgia team. Israel, who played on Thursday, made a solid start to their qualifying campaign by beating Malta 3-1 at home, with Chelsea's Yossi Benayoun netting all three goals for the hosts.
Last but by no means least, reigning world and European champions Spain lived up to their reputation in Group I by putting Liechtenstein to the sword 4-0, a Fernando Torres double helping them on their way.
Goal of the day
Armenia 0-1 Republic of Ireland
Keith Fahey (76)
Robbie Keane, on the edge of the box, controlled a long pass upfield with his chest, before attempting to turn inside Robert Arzumanyan, the closest Armenia defender. The ball deflected to Kevin Doyle, who instantly poked it back to Keith Fahey, left unmarked in the centre of the area. The Birmingham City midfielder, who had come on as a substitute just eight minutes before, promptly slotted a firm, low shot into the bottom left-hand corner of the net.
Player of the day
Sergei Kislyak (BLR)
Although France are going through one of the worse periods in their history in terms of results, not many observers would have bet on Belarus picking up all three points at the Stade de France. Brought on a quarter of an hour from the end to help secure the draw, Sergei Kislyak found himself in space in the box in the 86th minute, and showed no hesitation as he slammed Vyacheslav Hleb’s low, accurate pass from the byline high into the roof of the net. For the nation currently ranked 78th in the world, the midfielder’s goal ensured they would leave Paris with a historic result.
43 - The number of international goals scored by FIFA World Cup medal-winner David Villa, who now finds himself one strike away from equalling Raul’s all-time Spanish goalscoring record. The Barcelona front man’s goal-per-match ratio is already superior to that of the former Madrid striker, having amassed his total in just 66 appearances for Spain, compared to Raul’s 102.
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Can France recover from this early setback and qualify for EURO 2012?