After just three weeks of Premier League football, it’s time for the international break, and following a fine summer of football for most of the Home Nations (excusing England and Scotland from that), the focus switched to qualifying for the next World Cup, to be held in Russia in two years time. That questionable choice aside, the likes of Wales, the Republic and Northern Ireland will be hoping for a repeat of their acheivements that saw them reach France. Let’s see how they got on.
Slovakia 0-1 England
The start of a new era, it was proclaimed, however, you could be forgiven for thinking Roy Hodgson was still in charge of England, as they toiled to a laboured 1-0 victory under Sam Allardyce.
Adam Lallana snatched the winning goal deep, deep into injury time, smashing a low shot underneath Slovakia keeper Matus Kozacik following the dismissal of captain Martin Skrtel for two yellows midway through the second half. It will have been concerning for many English supporters to see the turgid display that saw them knocked out of Euro 2016 by Iceland reflected once again. Players looked aimless, passes’ were carelessly misplaced and the tempo was slow…very slow.
Truth be told, Slovakia were never up to much, the performance echoed that of the two team’s 0-0 draw in France, as they were focused on defence and only occasionally throwing their men forward. It was again against a resolute backline that England struggled to break down. Raheem Sterling carried forward some of his early positive Manchester City form to the national team, as he utilised his electrifying pace to good effect early on, but Harry Kane was not having one of his better evenings.
Captain Wayne Rooney was attempting to orchestrate from the midfield slot he occupied in France, but his wayward passes in the early stages were setting a poor precedent. The star was Lallana, with John Stones not far behind. Lallana has always been a nearly man for England, but his tricky wing play and consistency was just what England were in need of, and to cap his game off with the winning goal, his first for his country, was more than just for the Liverpool player. Stones is another playing looking to benefit from playing under Pep Guardiola at City, his surging runs and clever use of possession giving England a good out-route.
A disappointing start, but three points nonetheless, the ‘Big Sam’ era is well and truly underway.
Czech Republic 0-0 Northern Ireland
Following a dream European Championships, it was time to start it all over again for the Northern Irish in a tough looking trip to Prague to face the Czechs, a side who disappointed in France. They acquitted themselves well early on, employing a similar counter-attacking mentality which served them so well in the last qualifying campaign and to a certain degree of success over the summer.
The Czechs though, looked slack with the early play, in an England manner, failing to impose themselves in a game to the level an experienced home team at international level should. Indeed the first 45 was a lame affair with not a lot to write home about whatsoever.
The home side opened up the second half with some slick passing play and the Irish looked likely to buckle under pressure. Vaclav Kadlec shot straight at keeper Michael McGovern, as he looked to frustrate another footballing nation. Vital interceptions by Jonny Evans and the introduction of Josh Magennis filled the Irish with fresh impetus to send more shockwaves across Europe.
Chances were sparse for both teams, but after a rare set-piece mix-up by Gareth McAuley, the ball lay at the feet of Filip Novak, who proceeded to smash it wide from all of six yards, centre of goal. Evans was the rock of the team, throwing himself at Czech attack after attack, as the hosts used all their options from the bench to change the game in their favour.
There were late chances, but the Czech Republic just couldn’t break the Irish down, to the delight of the travelling thousands, who made their joy known at the final whistle. A point in Prague is nothing to be sniffed at, but the real work starts in October, with games against minnows San Marino at home and the world champions Germany away providing both the easiest and toughest tests they’ll face all campaign.
Malta 1-5 Scotland
The only of the home nations to not make it to the Euros, you’d have thought the Scottish team and management would’ve been seething during June and July, eager to come back in a group that, England aside, would be favourable. A trip to Malta, then, a perfect opportunity to get off to a winning start.
A slice of luck helped kick off their campaign too. A deep cross aimed at recent Fulham signing Chris Martin from Hull’s in-form Robert Snodgrass sailed fortuitously into the top corner of the net to open the scoring for the Scots in the ninth minute. That lead lasted all of four minutes, as a floated cross caused panic among the pair of centre-backs and Maltese striker Alfred Effiong nodded past David Marshall. Game on.
New Red Bull Leipzig signing Oliver Burke was a constant threat up top, using his youthful pace and imposing figure to good effect, but the Scots struggled to make their mark on the game, and Malta unexpectedly threatened on the break.
After half-time, though, the gulf in class between the two teams became more obvious, and Martin notched his second international strike slotted home a low cross by Matt Ritchie. Minutes later a bizarre moment provided more fortune for the away side. Martin was again the target of a cross, which defender Jonathan Caruana diverted behind for a corner…before the referee awarded a penalty and proceeded to send Caruana off! Snodgrass tucked away the spot-kick for his second of the game, but really go away and YouTube that ‘foul’ it’s worth hunting down.
Martin was replaced by Sheffield Wednesday’s Steven Fletcher, and it wouldn’t be long till he hit a fourth. Ritchie again whipped in a fine ball, that saw Fletcher head home as it was job done for the Scots. From there on out, it looked like Scotland would close the game up and head home with a positive goals scored tally and three valuable points. However, Robert Snodgrass fancied his hat-trick. After a surging run by Fletcher ended in a clipped chip hitting the crossbar, the winger seized upon the rebound, dummying a defender and hitting his first treble for his country. He then found the time to become involved in an altercation with Barnet’s (yes Barnet) Luke Gambin that saw him kick out at the hat-trick hero. A sour end to an impressive qualifier for Strachan’s boys.
With other results in Group F seeing England’s aforementioned 1-0 win and Slovenia and Lithuania play out a 2-2 draw, Scotland are sitting pretty, top on goal difference. A healthy haul from next month’s games against the Lithuanian’s and the same away trip to Slovakia that saw England struggle, would set them up nicely for a solid shot at a trip to Russia in two years time.
Wales 4-0 Moldova
After the most successful tournament in the country’s history, Wales were back home in Cardiff to face minnows Moldova, surely a shock wasn’t on the cards?
The now second most expensive player in the world, Gareth Bale was the centre of Wales’ play once again, as they utilised the Real Madrid man’s explosive pace to full effect. Aaron Ramsey was missing through injury, but other than that, the team was exclusively made up of those who contributed to the semi-final success in France.
It took a while for the Dragons to warm up, with full-backs Neil Taylor and Ben Davies in particular making their first appearances of the season, Joe Ledley tested the Moldovan stopper Illie Cebanu with an early effort. Sam Vokes also made himself known to Cebanu as they innocently clashed while competing for a high ball into the box. However sloppy possession was really preventing Wales from truly asserting their dominance on their opponents early on.
The resistance couldn’t make it to half-time, though, as that man Bale whipped in a fine cross for targetman Vokes to divert into the net. It was all that they deserved, as Moldova were increasinly relying upon aggression to preserve their solitary point. The second quickly followed, Ledley’s corner slipped through Cebanu’s grasp and found Joe Allen who took the invitation to flash it underneath the embarrassed keeper.
At this stage Wales were coasting, in control and with the goals to prove it. One man, who wanted to get in on the action, was a certain Mr Bale. It only took four minutes of the second half to make his mark, having been handed possession on a plate, he surged into the box, before clipping in from a tight angle. Very late on, the game in its dying embers, an innocous ball was put into the box, missing everybody, and the referee pointed to the spot, Bale having been knocked off his feet. He got up, dusted himself down and struck the ball home to make it four. Game. Set. Match.
Sitting pretty on top of the group on goal difference is exactly what Wales wanted at this stage. A strong, confident performance from a nation who’ve never managed to qualify for two straight tournaments. This lot might just be the recordbreakers, the golden generation for Welsh football.
Serbia 2-2 Republic of Ireland
After waving goodbye to record goalscorer and talisman Robbie Keane in last week’s Oman friendly, the Republic of Ireland switched their attention to the unenviable task of facing Serbia in a sodden Belgrade.
Despite a woeful qualification campaign for the Euros, and general disarray among the country’s FA, Serbia would always be regarded as a tough trip, but with in-form forward Robbie Brady in possession of Keane’s famous no. 10 shirt, anything was possible. Both sides would have to take on the added distraction of five hours worth of torrential rain that put the game itself into doubt. It passed an inspection, though, and it was well and truly game on.
An excellent start from the Boys in Green’s other recent hero Jeff Hendrick saw the away side take an early lead in the third minute. Brady’s free-kick caused havoc in the Serbia area, as they struggled to clear not once, but twice. The ball came out to Hendrick who swept home a strike from just outside the 18-yard box, taking a deflection off Chelsea’s Branislac Ivanovic. The perfect beginning for the road to Russia.
Serbia were patient with the possession as they sought to break down a resolute Irish backline, each man having a job to do and sticking to it. With Newcastle United forward Aleksander Mitrovic floundering up top, and not much of a creative spark in the Serbian line-up, it was the home team who went into the half-time break with their heads down and boos ringing out across the stadium.
Filip Kostic finally made the Serbian pressure tell on the hour mark following a Ivanovic centre into the Irish box. Southampton’s Dusan Tadic made John O’Shea look silly with a piece of nifty skill, before the ball fell to the onrushing, unmarked Kostic to sweep past Darren Randolph into the back of the net. It was what they deserved following a positive start to the second period of play.
The impetus gained from the equaliser led to a barrage of Serbian attacks, as scorer Kostic was felled softly by Jonathan Walters, leading the referee to point to the spot. It was down to Tadic to step up to take the penalty and he confidently hit it straight down the middle to thrust the home team into the lead for the first time, to the delighted chants of the home crowd.
Minutes later an improbable third almost followed, as an attempt cracked Randolph’s woodwork before bouncing into his grateful arms. As the game became increasingly end-to-end, it was Ireland’s turn to cause a scare, as Walters headed home a ball into the middle, only to find his effort ruled out by a correct offside call. However, all was not lost.
The impressive Hendrick was starting to look leggy, prompting boss Martin O’Neil to throw Darryl Murphy into the fray, a forward with no international goals to his name. An imposing presence, he found himself the centre of attention as he powered a set-piece home to restore parity once again in this game. While they’d been poorer in the second half, it was deserved for the Boys in Green based on their overall performance.
The group is fairly open on paper, with Wales having an excellent Euros, Austria having a poor one and Serbia not making it, there’s a legitimate opportunity here for the Irish to make it to Russia. Rescuing a point in Belgrade is a good start, but maximising their haul from October’s double-header against Georgia and Moldova will be essential for their cause. It’s a challenge they’ll relish.