As another round of international football comes to a close, it’s time to round up the key moments from the European fixtures.
Perhaps the most significant event throughout the international period was the culmination of the UEFA Nations League. The second edition of the modern tournament, designed to bring greater competition and incentive for international teams, saw France being crowned winners following a second-half resurgence against Spain. After a dull first half, Spain took a shock lead through Mikel Oyarzabal’s cool finish. Within a matter of minutes, France would respond emphatically as the in-form Karim Benzema lit up the final with a classic edge-of-the-box curler into the top corner. Kylian Mbappé controversially went on to score the winner, slotting past keeper Unai Simon calmly. The French talisman seemed to be offside at first glance, though a subsequent VAR check resulted in the goal standing.
France’s electric semi-final comeback against Belgium already epitomized the resolve of ‘Les Bleus’, showing that any hurdle is possible to overcome regardless of the challenge. For Belgium, the story of the ‘golden generation’ may never find its fairy-tale ending. After another disappointment in a major international tournament, it seems as though the ageing team of superstars have one last shot at glory next year at the Qatar World Cup. Euro 2020 winners Italy finished third upon defeating Belgium in the third-place play-off.
The home nations remained unconvincing. England played out an underwhelming home draw against Hungary in a match marred by crowd controversy with the away supporters. England remains on the verge of qualification, needing four points from fixtures against Albania and San Marino to qualify. England’s path to the World Cup may now be simple, but that statement must not deflect from the fact that Southgate’s team is showing signs of incompetency and complacency. The form of Harry Kane is also a cause for concern, with the Spurs striker still seeming a shadow of himself following a summer full of transfer speculation.
Scotland clinched a crucial 1-0 win over the Faroe Islands with a late Lyndon Dykes winner. Steve Clarke’s men will now look to secure second place in Group F and a play-off opportunity, victory away at Moldova on 12 November is all that stands in the way. Elsewhere, Wales scraped to a 1-0 win past Estonia thanks to Kieffer Moore’s early winner. With Belgium on the cusp of securing the sole automatic qualification spot in the group, Wales will be looking to finish second-place in order to guarantee themselves a potential route to the World Cup finals. If Wales manage to secure the runners-up position, they will enter the play-offs.
The hopes of Northern Ireland were completely dashed following a 2-1 defeat to Bulgaria in Sofia. They sit fourth in Group C and are now left to ponder what went wrong. This reflection for Northern Ireland has been a familiar case for over three decades, they have failed to reach the World Cup finals since 1986. Northern Ireland joins the Republic of Ireland in the list of home nations that have not qualified for the World Cup. However, Stephen Kenny’s Republic of Ireland are showing signs of good form on the back of a convincing 4-0 win over World Cup hosts Qatar. West Brom forward Callum Robinson was the star of the show, netting a hat-trick after scoring twice against Azerbaijan earlier in the week. In-form Robinson’s heroics led the Republic of Ireland to their first back-to-back wins since March 2019.
In other news, Portugal legend Cristiano Ronaldo produced a traditional Cristiano Ronaldo performance. In a 5-0 thrashing of Luxembourg, the icon scored his 58th career hat-trick and in the process became the first player in men’s international football to score 10 hat-tricks for his country. Denmark became the second team to qualify for the winter World Cup after Germany. The Danes continued where they left off after their successful Euro 2020 campaign, they have now qualified from their group by winning every single game and not conceding a single goal.
So far only three teams have qualified for the 2022 World Cup: Qatar (hosts), Germany and Denmark. International football will return on 11 November. The stakes will be at their highest as more countries will aim to be added to the list of qualified teams.