There were goals aplenty in Europe this week as the first two rounds of qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ bore the imprint of the continent's finest marksmen. No fewer than 130 efforts were registered in 50 matches, translating into an average of 2.74 goals per game. Three players celebrated hat-tricks, seven netted doubles and only five encounters finished goalless.

European football looks to be at a crossroads, with the younger generation staking its claim while older hands resist efforts to send them into retirement. With that dynamic operating at full force, goalkeepers found themselves more busy than usual as the road to South Africa 2010 opened up.

Not for the first time, Ukraine's Andriy Shevchenko led the way, continuing his return to form after two disappointing seasons with Chelsea. The 32-year-old AC Milan striker became the continent's leading scorer in FIFA World Cup qualifiers on Wednesday by firing his 20th goal in 28 meetings, moving him one clear of Portugal's Pedro Pauleta.

Adidas Golden Shoe winner at Germany 2006, Miroslav Klose also wrote headlines in midweek, notching up a treble in Finland to earn Joachim Low's side a 3-3 draw after they had found themselves trailing on three separate occasions.

There was joy for 30-year-old Tomas Danilevicius, too, with the Lithuania forward appearing to improve with age. Having plied his trade in seven different European leagues, he struck twice in a 2-0 victory over Austria that featured a chief contender for goal of the evening. The win also took Lithuania top of Group 7, where the favourites have yet to hit top gear.

While the continent's more experienced forwards impressed, 19-year-old Theo Walcott was undoubtedly the revelation of the midweek encounters. England's youngest international when he collected his first cap at the age of 17 and 75 days, Walcott repaid coach Fabio Capello's faith with a sublime hat-trick to inspire a 4-1 defeat of Croatia.

"He set the tone in these two games," noted captain John Terry, referring also to the 2-0 victory over Andorra. "He's been incredible all week. We have to praise the coach and Theo for proving themselves up to the task." Chosen ahead of David Beckham on the right wing, Walcott profited from the side's new-found solidarity.

Continuing where he left off at UEFA EURO 2008, Spain's David Villa is also in a rich vein of form. The 26-year-old may have missed injured strike partner Fernando Torres, but he could hardly have looked more comfortable as he scored twice in the 4-0 success over Armenia.

Veterans star
Italy also look to be firing on all cylinders, despite two games without a goal for first-choice striker Luca Toni. Udinese's 31-year-old forward Antonio di Natale and 25-year-old Roma midfielder Daniele de Rossi stepped into the breach instead, helping themselves to two goals apiece.

France's promising young talent Karim Benzema was unable to join in with the fun, however. Les Bleus had a couple of senior figures to thank for making the difference against Serbia, namely Thierry Henry, 31, and 29-year-old Nicolas Anelka.

They and their fellow European marksmen have enjoyed a prolific start to South Africa 2010 qualifying, with teams able to express themselves freely despite the high stakes. Whether they can continue in the same spirit or not will become clear with the next instalment of matches on 11 October.