The first steps on the road to France and Euro 2016 have been taken, and there was no shortage of surprises across the three days of qualifier action. Some of the European teams who featured at the World Cup this summer returned to competitive action in the worst possible manner, while others may just dare to believe that the scalps they took could be the springboard for an unlikely charge on the increased number of qualification places available. Who were the big winners and losers from matchday(s) one of European qualification?
Group A: Turkey stuffed and Dutch downed
Two of the three games in Group A fitted the description of ‘coupon buster’, with many people’s tips for first and second crashing to surprise defeats. The most eye-catching result was Turkey’s 3-0 hammering away to Iceland, who appear to have continued their impressive form from the World Cup qualifiers into this campaign. Perhaps we should not be hugely surprised by an Icelandic victory after their run to the play-offs for Brazil 2014, but the three-goal margin will have raised a few eyebrows. Swansea’s Gylfi Sigurdsson was on target in Reykjavik, as was the impressive Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, who will be well marshaled by opposition defenders in future games.
World Cup bronze medalists Netherlands made a disastrous start, losing 2-1 in the Czech Republic after Vaclav Pilar’s stoppage time winner. Newcastle’s Daryl Janmaat erred when his weak header was pounced upon by the Czech forward for the winning goal, while the hosts’ midfielder Borek Dockal stood out with a performance that also brought a first half goal. Plenty to ponder for Dutch coach Guus Hiddink, but the Czechs are off to a flier and their cause may also be helped by Turkey’s defeat.
The other encounter in the Euro 2016 qualifying group was a dismal 0-0 draw between Kazakhstan and Latvia, neither of whom will even threaten for a play-off position and could ship a heavy beating or two as the group goes on.
Star men: Kolbeinn Sigthorsson (Iceland), Borek Dockal (Czech Republic)
Group B: Wales Baled out and Bosnia beaten
It just had to be him, didn’t it? Staring a humiliating night against a team comprised almost entirely of amateurs on an artificial surface that your local five-a-side players would be ashamed of, the world’s most expensive footballer was bound to have a telling impact on proceedings. In the end, Wales really needed Gareth Bale to dig them out of a hole against Andorra, ranked by FIFA among the 10 worst teams in international football. The Real Madrid maestro was given special treatment by the home side’s combative/thuggish defenders, but ultimately he made his class tell and spared Chris Coleman’s team from embarrassment.
The Welsh did enough to stave off a poor result, something that could not be said for Bosnia-Herzegovina. Fresh from their first ever appearance at a major tournament, the Bosnians crashed to an unexpected 2-1 home defeat by Cyprus, even after taking an early lead through Vedad Ibisevic. Cypriot striker Dimitris Christofi took the plaudits in Sarajevo with his two-goal salvo and the home side also managed to squander the perfect chance for late salvation as Miralem Pjanic missed a penalty.
It is the first time that Bosnia go into a qualification campaign with expectations to get through, something that they haven’t dealt with thus far, while Wales will realise that substantial improvement is needed. The fixture between Israel and Belgium was scheduled to take place on Tuesday but was postponed and will instead be played in March.
Star men: Gareth Bale (Wales), Dimitris Christofi (Cyprus)
Group C: Holders get back in business after Brazilian fiasco
After the meek surrender of their world title in June, it is easy to forget that Spain are going for a third consecutive European crown, which would be an unprecedented feat in the tournament’s 54-year history. A Spanish side bearing quite a few changes from the team that imploded in Brazil had little trouble in sweeping past Macedonia by five goals to one, even if the visitors did cause a scare when scoring at 2-0. The experienced Sergio Ramos and David Silva were on target for Spain, as was the emerging Paco Alcacer.
Ukraine’s footballers missed their chance to bring some much-needed good news to the troubled nation as they went down 0-1 at home to Slovakia, Robert Mak with a first half winner. The hosts thought they had equalised in spectacular fashion in stoppage time when goalkeeper Olexander Pyatov bundled the ball into Slovakia’s net, only for the goal to be disallowed.
Luxembourg were one of several teams across Europe to spring a surprise after holding a promising Belarus team to a 1-1 draw. The underdogs even took the lead through Lars Gerson and had the upper hand until 12 minutes from time, Stanislav Dragun denying the home side a famous victory.
While Spain seem to be getting back on track after their woeful World Cup and Slovakia laid down a marker of their intent, things just don’t seem to be getting any better for beleaguered Ukraine.
Star men: Paco Alcacer (Spain), Robert Mak (Slovakia)
Group D: Irish eyes smiling but brave Scots unrewarded
The extent of Scotland’s improvement under Gordon Strachan would be laid bare by how they coped with the challenge of travelling to newly-crowned world champions Germany. Despite the home side missing key players through injury in Dortmund, the Scots proved to be a far bigger thorn in their side than many would have expected. They certainly didn’t have an inferiority complex, boldly taking the game to Germany and getting their reward through Ikeichi Anya’s second half goal. Ultimately, though, they didn’t have an answer to the prolific Thomas Muller, but the Tartan Army can take huge confidence going into the rest of the qualifiers.
However, they will have been disappointed that Georgia couldn’t quite hold out for a draw against Republic of Ireland in Tbilisi. All the more galling was that Ireland’s hero on the night was Aiden McGeady, a Glaswegian by birth. The Everton winger has been dogged by criticism over his lack of end product in a green shirt, but he put those accusations to bed with an exquisite 90th-minute winner. It wasn’t the only spectacular goal either; Tornike Okriashvili left David Forde stranded with a sumptuous first half strike.
The other Group D game ran along expected lines as Gibraltar were taught a harsh lesson by Poland on their competitive international debut. The Poles only had one goal on the board by half-time in Faro-Loule but added six more after the interval, with Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski on target four times in a facile victory.
So Germany got their win in unconvincing fashion, Ireland summoned enough spirit to avoid being tripped up and Scotland will be encouraged by their courageous showing. As for Gibraltar, they’ll do well to keep their eventual goals conceded figure under 70.
Star men: Thomas Muller (Germany), Ikeichi Anya (Scotland), Aiden McGeady (Ireland)
Group E: England overcome stiffest test
England had a score to settle after a familiarly disappointing performance on the world stage in Brazil and their opening qualifier against Switzerland looked fraught with danger. St Jakob Park in Basel has often seen English clubs come unstuck, but Roy Hodgson’s national team wouldn’t suffer the same fate. The much-maligned Danny Welbeck did his confidence plenty of good as he came up with both goals in a slow-burning match, but for the Three Lions, the result is everything.
Even better for England is that it seems hard to envisage where the competition for an automatic qualification place is going to come from. Estonia did cause a minor upset when beating Slovenia, although neither side can realistically expect to finish ahead of the English. Lithuania also got off to a winning start, but they were fully expected to beat San Marino and a final score of 2-0 will not strike fear into their Group E rivals.
It is incredibly early days yet but already England look well on course for a routine passage to the finals. Switzerland away was meant to be their toughest challenge, but the World Cup second round fallers never got going in Basel.
Star men: Danny Welbeck (England), Ats Purje (Estonia), Arvidas Novikovas (Lithuania)
Group F: Kyle has the last Laff for Ulstermen
Kyle Lafferty’s career hasn’t always passed off smoothly, an unconventional stint in Serie B with Palermo part of his life story, but he was the toast of Northern Ireland on Sunday night after his late winner in the 2-1 away win over Hungary, all three goals coming in a frenetic last 15 minutes. It was a hugely encouraging win for Michael O’Neill and his troops, one which may just be the start of a tilt at the play-offs in what promises to be a wide open group.
Greece only exited the World Cup after a last 16 penalty shoot-out defeat to Costa Rica, but they were rocked by Romania on Sunday, losing 1-0 in front of their own fans. Ciprian Marica’s early penalty was enough to secure the points for Romania, although their captain later blotted his copybook by getting himself sent off and leaving his team a man light for most of the second half. Alexandru Chipciu was the standout performer in the Euro 2016 qualifying game in Piraeus.
Finland survived a scare away to the Faroe Islands, coming from behind to win 3-1. Riku Riski showed that he is a safe choice for future games after his double in Torshavn, with Roman Eremenko also on target for the Finns. Captain Niklas Moisander of Ajax will be disappointed with his evening, though, after a rare mistake led to the Faroes’ opener.
Star men: Kyle Lafferty (Northern Ireland), Riku Riski (Finland)
Group G: Russia take early command
The pressure was on for Russia to produce a big performance in front of their disgruntled fans after an awful World Cup, and even though Liechtenstein didn’t exactly provide stiff opposition, Fabio Capello’s men got the job done in comfortable fashion with a 4-0 home win. It would be remiss to suggest that all is sweetness and light again, though – the visitors twice put through their own net and another of the goals was a penalty. It was simply a case of getting a substantial win on board and erasing the cobwebs from Brazil.
Montenegro also got off to a winning start, defeating Moldova 2-0 in Podgorica. Mirko Vucinic and Zarko Tomasevic provided the goals for the home side, for whom midfielder Nemanja Nikolic played a starring role. Meanwhile, Austria and Sweden shared the spoils in Vienna, David Alaba’s early penalty quickly cancelled out by Erkan Zengin. The mercurial Zlatan Ibrahimovic wasn’t on the scoresheet but nonetheless illustrated his importance to the cause, working tirelessly for the team throughout.
On an opening matchday of surprises, Group G bucked the trend by failing to produce any eye-catching results. Montenegro will probably be happiest with proceedings at this early stage.
Star men: Nemanja Nikolic (Montenegro), Denis Glushakov (Russia)
Group H: Azzurri begin with a win
Italy were among several high-profile early casualties at the World Cup and sought to quickly put Brazil out of their system as they traveled to Norway. It was a fixture that had tended to trip up the Azzurri in previous years, but Antonio Conte’s side showed an impressive focus and desire to win 2-0. There were a few unfamiliar names in the Italy line-up, although the performance of Simone Zaza suggested that we may hear plenty more of him in the coming months. He netted the opener in Oslo.
Croatia were also hoping to arise from a World Cup hangover and despite beating Malta 2-0 in Zagreb, the nature of the performance won’t have their Group H opponents trembling with fear. Luka Modric struck the opening goal from distance and young Andrej Kramaric was also on target for Niko Kovac’s men.
Bulgaria faced a tricky opener away to Azerbaijan, coming out the right side of a 2-1 scoreline. Ventsislav Hristov came up with a late winner for the Bulgarians, for whom the celebrations spoke more of relief than jubilation. Still, the value of beginning a qualifying campaign with three points can never be understated, particularly in a fixture like this.
Italy’s young guns impressed and can only improve with the considerable experience of Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo alongside them for guidance. Croatia will need to show more if they are to qualify automatically.
Star men: Simone Zaza (Italy), Andrej Kramaric (Croatia)
Group I: Sidelined Ronaldo witnesses more pain for poor Portuguese
Portugal were horrendous at the World Cup and had to make do without Cristiano Ronaldo for what ought to have been a straightforward opening tie at home to Albania. With Ronaldo’s former Man United team-mate Nani taking the captain’s armband, the Portuguese fell victim to perhaps the shock of the opening week of qualifiers. Bekim Balaj sparked scenes of joy for Albania, while the jeers and whistles rang out at full-time for Paulo Bento and his misfiring team.
Denmark were also staring down the barrel of an unexpected home defeat, but unlike Portugal they found a way to survive a very stiff test from Armenia, who won 4-0 on their last visit to the Scandinavian country. Thomas Kahlenberg’s late winner ensured a 2-1 win in a match that saw the teams’ respective talismans Christian Eriksen and Henrikh Mkhitaryan show their worth.
The Danes can be happy with the win in the knowledge that they will have plenty to work on for their upcoming qualifiers. Serbia’s prospects may have been boosted without kicking a ball (well, they did have a friendly against France) after Portugal’s defeat, one which already leaves Ronaldo and co with very little margin for error.
Star men: Lorik Cana (Albania), Bekim Balaj (Albania)