Germany revived, Denmark and Belgium unstoppable
Italy and Cristiano Ronaldo set new global benchmarks
Europe’s top teams return to qualifying action next month
If a week is a long time in politics, it can seem like an eternity in football, as seven seismic days of FIFA World Cup™ qualifying action once again underlined.
When the first ball was kicked of a frenetic period of preliminary matches, Germany languished third in their section, Brazil and Spain still held the world-record unbeaten run, La Roja hadn’t lost a World Cup qualifier in 28 years and Ali Daei remained international football’s all-time leading marksman.
But all that changed, and much more besides, as the continent’s top teams and star players slugged it out for precious points. And with less than a month to wait until the next instalment of this qualifying drama, there is still plenty to play for across all ten sections.
For 89 minutes of their first fixture in this World Cup qualifying window, Portugal looked to be heading for a damaging home defeat – and handing Serbia the chance to go top. But Ronaldo, undeterred by missing an earlier penalty, grabbed a late, record-breaking brace, strengthening a position at the summit that was further fortified by a 3-0 win in Azerbaijan. Serbia, denied the chance to join the Portuguese on 13 points by a late Irish equaliser on Tuesday, remain in the hunt though, and have increased the gap on third-placed Luxembourg.
September proved to be a tale of 2-1 wins in this section: one for Sweden over Spain that looked to have handed the Scandinavians the initiative, then for Greece against the Swedes that put La Roja back in command. The Spanish, for their part, recovered well from losing in Solna by recording resounding wins over Georgia and Kosovo.
Although they failed to win either of their first two competitive matches since becoming European champions, Italy ended this round of qualifiers on a high by thumping Lithuania 5-0 to move six points clear. Switzerland remain Gli Azzurri’s closest challengers, and have two games in hand, but their cause was not helped by a goalless draw away to Northern Ireland.
Despite enduring a difficult campaign, in which they have rarely been at their best, holders France emerge from these matches with a hefty seven-point lead. While Les Bleus were held in their first two matches, at home to Bosnia and Herzegovina and away to Ukraine, draws have been in even more plentiful supply elsewhere. Indeed, only four wins have been recorded in this section, with the French – who concluded with a 2-0 victory over Finland – responsible for three of them.
Belgium will take some stopping in this section. The Red Devils won three out of three to extend their advantage at the top to nine points. Czech Republic and Wales, their closest rivals, both dropped points along the way, although each have games in hand with which to narrow the Belgians' hefty lead.
With six straight wins, 22 goals scored and zero conceded, on-song Denmark boast the most impressive record of all the European hopefuls. Kasper Hjulmand’s side tightened their grip on a guaranteed spot at Qatar 2022 by putting seven unanswered goals past closest rivals Scotland (2-0) and Israel (5-0). The Scots, for their part, boosted their hopes of a play-off spot by ending this series of fixtures with a precious 1-0 win away to beleaguered Austria.
It was impossible to separate Norway and the Netherlands when they drew 1-1 in the first of their September fixtures, and the same is true of the section overall, with both sides locked together at the top on 13 points. Erling Haaland dazzled for the Norwegians, scoring five across his three matches, while Memphis Depay amassed an identical tally for the Dutch, grabbing a hat-trick in his final fixture as early pacesetters Turkey were demolished 6-1.
A near-identical situation unfolded in Group H, where Russia and Croatia followed up a draw in their opening match this month by recording comfortable back-to-back wins. That has left the pair, like Norway and the Netherlands, tied at the summit on 13 points apiece, with Slovakia – victorious in just one of their three fixtures – now four points off the pace.
England looked to be all but putting the seal on a place in Qatar until the 92nd minute of their third qualifier this month, when Poland revived their hopes with a late equaliser. Damian Szymanski’s stoppage-time strike capped a good week for the Poles, who had earlier claimed impressive wins over San Marino and second-placed Albania.
Germany began these September qualifiers in third place, behind both Armenia and North Macedonia. They end them four points clear in first after racking up three big wins, scoring 12 goals without reply, while their two main rivals were left to count the cost of dropped points. The Hansi Flick era has started off with a bang.
111: In scoring his 110th and 111th Portugal goals, Cristiano Ronaldo became the highest-scoring man in international football history. Republic of Ireland, the victims of his late heroics, duly became the 45th different national team against whom CR7 has found the net.
66: In going down 2-1 to Sweden, Spain suffered their first defeat in a World Cup qualifier since March 1993. An incredible total of 66 matches had passed between that 1-0 loss in Copenhagen and last week’s Solna setback.
37: Italy’s run of 37 matches - and counting - without defeat (28 wins, nine draws) is the new global benchmark. Over the past week, Roberto Mancini’s Azzurri surpassed the 35-game runs put together by Brazil (1993-1996) and Spain (2007-2009).
16: Denmark’s 22 goals in Qatar 2022 qualifying have been spread across a remarkable 16 players, with Skov Olsen the only Dane with more than two to his name.
12: Memphis Depay has scored 12 times for the Netherlands in 2021, equalling Patrick Kluivert’s record for Oranje goals in a calendar year. The Barcelona star now has 33 international goals overall, which has taken him level with the great Johan Cruyff.
“From all the records that I have broken during my career – and fortunately there have been a few – this one is very special for me and it’s certainly on the shelf of the achievements that make me truly proud." Cristiano Ronaldo on his latest record