French relief, Scandinavian success
An impressive France scored twice in the last 20 minutes to win 2-0 in Bosnia-Herzegovina and ease their considerable troubles, but Norway’s Erik Huseklepp compounded the pressure on Portugal with the only goal in Oslo. That ensured Egil Olsen’s men finished Matchday 2 of UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying as one of ten teams on six points.
England, Montenegro and Slovakia joined them with respective away victories over Switzerland, Bulgaria and Russia, while Germany, Italy, Sweden, Republic of Ireland, Turkey and the Netherlands maintained their 100 per cent records due to home successes.
Benzema, Malouda end barren run
Following a dismal FIFA World Cup™, well-publicised problems within the camp, defeat in Norway in Laurent Blanc’s debut at the reins, and a 1-0 loss at home to minnows Belarus in their EURO 2012 qualifying curtain-raiser on Friday, France desperately needed to soothe their mouting problems. Bosnia-Herzegovina eased to three points in Luxembourg on their opener, and a vibrant crowd in Sarajevo expected their heroes to make it six.
Les Bleus, however, looked in the mood to frustrate their hosts from the outset, with Malouda and Benzema proving incessant sources of torment to their markers. The 1998 world champions, indeed, were the better side throughout, though a draw appeared on the cards until the 72nd minute. That was when the Real Madrid striker collected Gael Clichy’s left-wing cross, side-stepped a defender and fired a firm drive past goalkeeper Kenan Hasagic.
It took France just eight minutes to double their lead, and what a wonderful exhibition of team-work the goal was. Alou Diarra did superbly to rob Edin Dzeko of possession and fed Mathieu Valbuena, who slipped the ball to Abou Diaby. The Arsenal midfielder’s pass allowed Malouda to seal a much-needed 2-0 triumph.
“We produced a marvellous result tonight,” Blanc told AFP post-match. “Our use of the ball was very good and, contrary to what happened on Friday, we got forward quickly. The fact we played deeper allowed us to create space and we have players up front such as Karim, who like space.”
What could have been a disastrous night for Blanc and France ended in the coach’s first win and the team’s best result in a long time. They are now level with Bosnia-Herzegovina on three points, one behind both Albania and Belarus. The latter played out a goalless draw with Romania in Minsk, while Hamdi Salihi’s first-half strike earned Josip Kuze’s charges a 1-0 defeat of Luxembourg.
Norway upset Portugal, Sweden run riot
Portugal, who were held 4-4 at home by Cyprus on Friday, faced what was, on paper at least, an easier task than France. But despite having the better of the chances away to Norway, the Iberians did not score the only one that was converted at the Ullevaal Stadion. That distinction befell Huseklepp, who was given a simple tap-in when goalkeeper Eduardo’s clearance was blocked into his path by team-mate John Carew.
“With this defeat, the situation is not good,” said Agostinho Oliveira, Portugal’s caretaker coach, afterwards. “The situation is clearly worrying, but we have to see what we can do.
"We are in a group in which 18 or 19 points should be enough to get through, and we have six games to play. Now, six times three equals 18, and we'll certainly win them all.”
Fellow Scandinavians Sweden flew to the top of Group E by overwhelming San Marino, Zlatan Ibrahimovic netting twice in a 6-0 rout. Erik Hamren’s troops are above the Netherlands, who beat Finland 2-1 courtesy of an early Klass-Jan Huntelaar double, on goal difference.
Cassano, Klose inspire routs
Italy were also emphatic winners, the in-form Antonio Cassano inspiring a 5-0 win over Faroe Islands. The 28-year-old Sampdoria forward was on target along with Alberto Gilardino, Daniele De Rossi, Fabio Quagliarella and Andrea Pirlo on Cesare Prandelli’s return to the Stadio Artemio Franchi, where he coached Fiorentina for five years until the end of the 2009/10 season.
"It was easy because I knew Florence would always be generous, the fans have always been great with me and so I knew it would be easy tonight," the 53-year-old said. “Did I fear we could lose? There is always a risk, but the players were good as they raised the rhythm and we got the early goals. Cassano is well mentally and he does the important things all over the pitch, especially near the box. The enthusiasm for the national team is always growing."
Serbia and Slovenia drew 1-1 in Group C’s other game in Belgrade. Milivoje Novakovic fired the guests in front just after the hour mark, but Nikola Zigic snatched a share of the spoils with an 86th-minute effort that took his side on to four points, two behind Gli Azzurri.
Germany emulated Italy and Sweden by recording a big win in front of their own supporters. A Miroslav Klose double, which took his tally to 55 goals in 103 internationals, helped inflict a 6-1 thrashing upon Azerbaijan.
"The team has some great chemistry," said Germany coach Joachim Low. "It's fun to see this chemistry again. It's also a good thing that we did not stop after going 3-0 up - we continued to go for even more."
Turkey moved level on points with the Group A leaders thanks to a hard-fought 3-2 reverse of ten-man Belgium in Istanbul, Arda Turan hitting the winner 12 minutes from time. Elsewhere in the section, Austria got off on the right note but only after injury-time goals from Roland Linz and substitute Erwin Hoffer saw off Kazakhstan’s commendable challenge.
England impress, Scotland snatch victory
England made it impressive back-to-back victories with a 3-1 win over Switzerland. Wayne Rooney broke the deadlock from close range in the tenth minute, and the pendulum swung further in the Three Lions’ favour when Stephan Lichtsteiner was sent off for a second bookable offence in the 65th minute.
Rooney and captain Steven Gerrard swiftly combined to send Adam Johnson through on goal. The Manchester City winger, who had dazzled since replacing the injured Theo Walcott early on, duly skipped round keeper Diego Benaglio and slotted into the empty net.
Switzerland, to their credit, refused to throw in the towel and they halved the deficit when 18-year-old substitute Xherdan Shaqiri cut inside Ashley Cole and thumped an unstoppable left-foot shot past Joe Hart from outside the box. However, Darren Bent rose from the bench to dispatch a neat finish and put the result beyond doubt in the 88th minute.
“We deserve a lot of credit tonight after beating Switzerland 3-1, but it should have been five or six,” reflected Gerrard. “People talk about Switzerland and how good they are defensively, but we just tore them apart.
“It’s going to take another two years to prove to supporters and everyone around world to prove that England are back (following a disappointing FIFA World Cup). Two good results don't make you a good team. What makes you a good team is qualifying easily from the group, and going to a big tournament and showing you can mix it with the best.”
Montenegro kept pace with England in Group H through a 1-0 win in Bulgaria, whose coach Stanimir Stoilov resigned thereafter.
Scotland, who drew their opening preliminary 0-0 away to Lithuania, somehow managed to eke out a 2-1 win over Liechtenstein at Hampden Park. Mario Frick's spendid curler earned the visitors a shock lead just after half-time, before Kenny Miller smashed a volley into the roof of the net – his first international goal in over two years – to level the scores in the 63rd minute.
Craig Levein’s side laid seige to their adversaries’ goal, and they finally found that elusive winner seven minutes into added time, when defender Stephen McManus headed home a corner to the delight of the home supporters.
Scotland head Lithuania, 1-0 victors away to Czech Republic, on goals scored, although Spain are only a point behind the pair with a game in hand.