Most of Europe’s powerhouses enjoyed satisfactory starts to their qualification campaigns for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ on Friday. Italy, held to a 2-2 draw in Bulgaria, were the only traditional heavyweights not to claim maximum points. The Netherlands and Portugal ground out tight victories over Turkey and Luxembourg respectively, while France picked up their first competitive win under Didier Deschamps.
The opening round of European qualifying matches was certainly not short of goalmouth action, with teams hitting the net 60 times in 22 matches.
After suffering four successive losses, the Netherlands finally got back to winning ways, but their display versus Turkey is unlikely to have reassured their demanding supporters. Louis van Gaal’s decision to start Robin van Persie up front proved to be an astute one, as the newly signed Manchester United forward opened the scoring in the 17th minute, heading home a Wesley Sneijder corner.
Despite this early lead, the expected confidence boost did not materialise, as the Turks continued to impose themselves physically on the game, although their inability to deliver an effective final ball was badly hindering their attempts to equalise.
The pressure on the Dutch goal increased further in the second half, but it was the Oranje who finally killed the game off, Luciano Narsingh running through on the counter-attack to chip the ball over the advancing Turkish goalkeeper.
The other games
Wales 0-2 Belgium
Croatia 1-0 Macedonia
Scotland-Serbia (Saturday 8 September)
Belgium kicked off their campaign in impressive style by defeating ten-man Wales 2-0 in Cardiff. The Diables Rouges had two of their English Premier League stars to thank for the result, namely Vincent Kompany and Jan Vertonghen. Croatia, meanwhile, struggled at home to Balkan neighbours Macedonia, but were rescued in the second period by a Nikica Jelavic header.
Malta 0-1 Armenia
Bulgaria 2-2 Italy
Denmark-Czech Republic (Saturday 8 September)
UEFA European Championship runners-up Italy fielded a youthful line-up in Bulgaria, but their revamped side was unable to produce a winning performance against a robust home team that thoroughly merited at least a point.
In spite of their superior technique and some clinical finishing from Argentina-born striker Pablo Osvaldo, who scored a double of which the recently retired Filippo Inzaghi would have been proud, the Italians had Gianluigi Buffon to thank for the result, his vital stops saving them from a surprise defeat. Consequently, the Armenians, whose 1-0 triumph in Malta came courtesy of Artur Sarkisov, now find themselves provisionally top of the section.
Germany 3-0 Faroe Islands
Kazakhstan 1-2 Republic of Ireland
Having rested numerous regular starters, Germany did just enough to beat the Faroes, with Mario Gotze and Mesut Osil on hand to unlock a resolute opposing defence. Kazakhstan flirted with victory against the Irish, whose fighting spirit produced two goals – a Robbie Keane penalty and a Kevin Doyle volley – in the final two minutes of play to complete an astonishing turnaround.
Netherlands 2-0 Turkey
Andorra 0-5 Hungary
Estonia 0-2 Romania
Hungary, on fine scoring form in Andorra, and Romania, who efficiently took care of business in Estonia via goals from Gabriel Torje and Ciprian Marica, will both be delighted to get their campaigns off to a positive start.
Iceland 2-0 Norway
Albania 3-1 Cyprus
Slovenia 0-2 Switzerland
Slovenia and Norway may live to regret their opening-day performances, in a section that could end up being the most closely contested of all. Iceland created the surprise of the night by overcoming an off-form Norway side, while Switzerland brought back a very important three points from Slovenia, Granit Xhaka and Gokhan Inler grabbing the goals.
Russia 2-0 Northern Ireland
Luxembourg 1-2 Portugal
Azerbaijan 1-1 Israel
Although his morale may not currently be at its highest, Cristiano Ronaldo put Portugal back on track against Luxembourg, after the modest home team had surprisingly taken the lead. The Real Madrid man scored the equaliser before Helder Postiga completed the comeback after the break.
New Russia coach Fabio Capello began his reign in positive fashion as his charges saw off Northern Ireland 2-0, with the goals coming from Victor Fayzulin and Roman Shirokov. In the pool’s other game, Israel, who had initially gone ahead through Bibras Natcho, were forced to make do with a draw in Azerbaijan, following Ramazan Abbasov’s leveller on the hour mark.
Liechtenstein 1-8 Bosnia-Herzegovina
Lithuania 1-1 Slovakia
Latvia 1-2 Greece
A crucial second-half winner from the irrepressible Theofanis Gekas enabled the Greeks to secure a hard-fought win in Latvia, while Slovakia had to content themselves with a draw in Lithuania. Bosnia-Herzegovina recorded the highest margin of victory of the evening, demolishing Liechtenstein 8-1, in a match that featured hat-tricks for Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic, and a brace for Zvjezdan Misimovic.
Montenegro 2-2 Poland
Moldova 0-5 England
Fans in the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica witnessed an evenly matched encounter in which Poland obtained a deserved share of the spoils, but there was no such suspense in Moldova, where the English ran out comfortable 5-0 winners.
Georgia 1-0 Belarus
Finland 0-1 France
It was a good night all-round for France, who registered their seventh consecutive victory over Finland and welcomed back commanding midfielder Abou Diaby – who netted the winning goal following a fine through ball from Karim Benzema – after a long, injury-enforced absence.
Even more pleasing for Didier Deschamps would have been the news that Belarus, who have been a thorn in Les Bleus’ side in recent times, suffered a 1-0 reverse in Georgia, for whom midfield man Tornike Okriashvili scored a remarkable goal to break the deadlock, skilfully evading three defenders before slipping the ball past Belarus custodian Sergei Veremko.
Daniel da Mota Alves, a 26-year-old Portugal native who was granted Luxembourgish citizenship in 2007, stunned his former countrymen by opening the scoring against A Selecção das Quinas. The relatively unknown striker has racked up 91 goals in 177 matches in Luxembourg, and bagged a brace in a friendly win over Slovakia last year.
Bulgaria 1-0 Italy, Stanislav Manolev 30
The opening goal of a pulsating 2-2 draw was scored by PSV’s Bulgarian defender, Stanislav Manolev, who brought the home fans to their feet by beating the otherwise excellent Buffon with a spectacular long-range shot. Spotting that the keeper was positioned slightly too far to his left, Manolev instantly let fly with a powerful effort that bounced over the Italian’s outstretched arms to nestle in the back of the net.
34 – The age of Frank Lampard who, 13 years after making his England debut against Belgium on 10 October 1999, helped himself to two goals against Moldova on Friday, taking his international scoring tally to 25 in 92 appearances, a creditable total for an attacking midfielder.
Have your say
Who will top the scoring charts in the European Zone?