There will have been more than a few eyebrows raised across Europe this evening as the sixth round of qualifiers for UEFA EURO 2008 heralded the last competitive action on the continent this calendar year. The biggest surprise of all came in Cyprus, where heavyweights Germany could only muster a 1-1 draw, while Russia sprung into life with a 2-0 win over Macedonia and Croatia netted four times in Israel.
Results from all the night's matches
Captain Yiannis Okkas will claim all the headlines in Cyprus tomorrow after his equaliser earned the islanders a share of the spoils against an under-par German side, who nevertheless took an early lead through Michael Ballack. The Mannschaft still did enough to return to the summit of Group D though, edging ahead of the Czech Republic on goal difference. Joachim Löw's men will undoubtedly feel they let two points slip, but the Cypriots had already proved themselves to be an up-and-coming force with their staggering 5-2 victory over Ireland last month. For their part, the Irish picked themselves up with a 5-0 home win over San Marino in which Robbie Keane helped himself to a hat-trick.
The match of the night undoubtedly took place in Israel, however, where Croatia put in an excellent attacking performance against a side that had only conceded twice in their first three Group E contests. Roberto Colautti seemed to have put the hosts on the right track with an eighth-minute opener, but after Dario Srna levelled from the spot, Eduardo da Silva went into overdrive.
Da Silva's scoring festival
The Dinamo Zagreb striker struck two unanswered goals to put his team 3-1 up, and after Yossi Benayoun hit back for Israel, he completed his hat-trick to make the points safe. There were some nervous moments at the end, though, with Colautti bringing the Israelis back to within a goal as Dror Kashtan's charges struggled valiantly to take something from the game.
Elsewhere in the group, Russia will be pleased with their business-like 2-0 triumph in Macedonia, where Zenit Saint Petersburg strike duo Vladimir Bistrov and Andreï Arshavin both got their names on the score-sheet. Those results leave the situation tighter than ever, because behind leaders Croatia (ten points), Russia (eight), England, Israel and Macedonia (seven) are all vying for a berth in the main event.
There was a change at the top of Group A too, with Finland now one point clear of Serbia and Poland, who both have a game in hand. Jari Litmanen and Co. leapfrogged their rivals courtesy of a slender 1-0 success against a courageous Armenian team. Mika Nurmela was responsible for the only goal. In contrast, Belgium saw their hopes diminish as they went down to a Radoslav Matusiak strike in a 1-0 loss at home to the Poles. Meanwhile, Portugal raced to a convincing 3-0 victory over lowly Kazakhstan to apply extra pressure on the leading trio.
The next round of games will be held on 7 February 2007.
Away from the qualifiers, the sides not in competitive action took full advantage to practice some fine tuning in friendly fixtures. The most high-profile of those saw Marco van Basten's youthful Dutch outfit rescue a 1-1 draw against England thanks to Rafael Van der Vaart's effort four minutes from time. Wayne Rooney had opened the scoring for the English after 37 minutes. Similarly, the Czech Republic needed a last-gasp equaliser from Milan Baros to escape with a 1-1 draw at home to Denmark.
Tough night for Italy, no trouble for France
Côte d'Ivoire put in one of the performances of the evening by beating Sweden 1-0, their goal coming - you guessed it - from the in-form Didier Drogba. The Chelsea man has been finding the net regularly in recent weeks, in the league, in the UEFA Champions League and now for his country.
Italy, meanwhile, were held 1-1 at home by Turkey. Antonio di Natale opened the scoring, cashing in on a schoolboy error by the Turkish keeper, only for Marco Materazzi to score an own goal just three minutes later.
FIFA World Cup finalists France edged past European champions Greece 1-0, thanks to Thierry Henry's 39th international goal.
The co-organisers of the next European Championship both had an encouraging night. Austria thumped Costa Rica 4-1, with Rene Aufhauser grabbing a hat-trick. Switzerland, meanwhile, lost 2-1 to Brazil. The South Americans' goals came from Luisao and Kaka, and another Brazilian, Maicon, scored for the Swiss with an own goal.