UEFA World Cup qualifying winners and losers: Cristiano Ronaldo denies Luxembourg; Belgium score eight
The shape of several groups in Europe’s World Cup qualifying fixtures is becoming clear after high-scoring victories for Belgium and the Netherlands, two dropped points by Turkey that could change the shape of Group G and a near miss for Luxembourg at home to Portugal. Here are the winners and losers from Tuesday’s games:
Winner: Roberto Martinez
With Euro 2020 on the horizon, the Belgium boss finds himself in the welcome position of being overloaded with options who are proving to be consistently valuable when they pull on the red shirt. After a 1-1 draw in Prague that ought not to be sniffed at, Martinez was able to rotate his entire front seven and his goalkeeper with no noticeable drop-off in performance.
Indeed from the outset of their 8-0 win over Belarus, Belgium looked a more effective attacking force despite being without Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens, to name but a few of the star names who were left among the substitutes in Leuven as Jeremy Doku, Michy Batshuayi and others took center stage. With the caveat that Tuesday’s opponents were not to the same level as the Czech Republic, this was a sign of impressive strength in depth for Martinez.
Rennes winger Doku already looks likely to become a fixture for the Red Devils in the years to come whilst Batshuayi has a welcome habit of shaking off his struggles on the club stage to score for Belgium, his powerfully struck opener the sixth international goal he has scored this season. Meanwhile Leandro Trossard continued his fine form in a Brighton shirt with a fearsome strike from the edge of the area, the third goal that killed off Belarussian hopes and set the stage for a rout in which he got one more .
These players will probably feature in the second string come the start of Euro 2020 but Martinez has a group of players behind the Lukakus, Hazards and De Bruynes who can be relied upon to deliver when they are needed.
But what a glorious defeat it was. Indeed I was almost tempted to put Portugal in this category for robbing Europe of what would have been one of the most remarkable results in recent qualifiers, Luxembourg beating Cristiano Ronaldo and company at home.
It seemed the game was destined for something quite remarkable when Portugal-born Gerson Rodrigues scored a brilliant diving header to open the scoring. With Anthony Moris making sprawling saves from Renato Sanches and the Portuguese forwards spurning chances in the box it was impossible not to imagine what might happen if Luxembourg could make it to halftime, earning themselves 15 minutes to adjust their gameplan and for their guests to stew in a nervy dressing room. To his credit Diogo Jota came up at the crucial moment with a well-placed header, something that could not have been said of Ronaldo and the other forwards.
Ronaldo was unusually profligate in the first half but made no mistake in the second, judging his run to stay onside and volley home Joao Cancelo’s cross with his instep. Ronaldo’s pairing with Jota looks to be an impressive melding of qualities, the Juventus man able to occupy more advanced spaces whilst his fellow forward flits around, presses and links play with midfield.
To their credit Luxembourg did not roll over when Portugal took the lead. Instead they attacked with vigor, Rodrigues driving a low shot just wide of Anthony Lopes near post, and defended with intensity. The Portuguese goalkeeper had to be at his best in the 70th minute when Sebastien Thill’s curling free kick from the right channel briefly threatened to dip in at the far post. Lopes still found himself outshone by Moris at the other end, whose brilliant double save from Ronaldo ensured this contest was live until the 80th minute when Joao Palhinha headed home at the near post.
For all that their history means they are viewed as a minnow this team look like they are perfectly capable of hanging with the best on the continent and punishing those like the Republic of Ireland who assume they should be beating the Red Lions. Tonight was not the giant killing it briefly threatened to be but more performances like this and Luxembourg will slay one of Europe’s Goliaths before too long.
Winner: Aleksandar Mitrovic
In the space of six days Mitrovic netted two more goals for Serbia than he has scored for Fulham throughout what has been a frustrating season but the 26-year-old at least returns to Craven Cottage in perfect form as he capped what has been an outstanding week with the match-winning brace in a tough 2-1 win for his country in Azerbaijan.
The hosts were not quite the easy picking Serbia might have assumed after impressive results against the Republic of Ireland and Portugal, indeed at times it seemed like most of Dragan Stojkovic’s side had put so much into securing four points from those first two games that there was nothing left in the tank for the long trip to Baku. Luckily there was one player who still had what was needed as Mitrovic scored two quite brilliant goals, the first coming from a smart touch infield and low drive from the edge of the penalty box.
The second came from similar smart build-up, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic slipping the Fulham forward into a dangerous spot in between two Azerbaijan defenders. There was still plenty for Mitrovic to do but he did so quite excellently, thumping a bouncing ball low into the bottom corner to earn a hard fought win for Serbia. It would have been a frustrating jolt to the momentum building in Belgrade had their third fixture of qualifying seen them drop points, as is they have a sizeable seven-point cushion over an Ireland side that might have believed they were a potential rival for second place behind Portugal. Instead it looks like being a battle between the Serbs and Portuguese for top spot in Group A and a guaranteed place at next year’s World Cup.
At 26 it might be the case that Mitrovic is destined to be the sort of striker who excels in the Championship and European qualifiers but does not quite have the all-round game to replicate those heights in the biggest leagues and international tournaments. Still Fulham do not necessarily need him to be a consistent Premier League striker as they battle against the drop, they just need the odd flash of today’s player off the bench. That could be enough to keep them up.
Though they ultimately picked up a point doing so at home to Latvia when they twice held two-goal leads will feel like a defeat for Senol Gunes’ side, who had secured such excellent wins over the Netherlands and Norway to kickstart Group G. Those games did show some of the signs of defensive vulnerability that would cost them dearly at the Ataturk Stadium as they allowed themselves to be overpowered by a robust Latvia side.
There will be plenty of defenders that struggle with the physicality of a player like Davis Ikaunieks, who scored the goal that earned Latvia a 3-3 draw, but one would think that Caglar Soyuncu and Ozan Kabak would not be among them. The same might be true of Roberts Uldrikis, who pounced on defensive errors in the Turkey box to make the scoreline 3-2.
It was notable that Gunes threw on a more defensive-minded midfielder in Taylan Antalyali without it adding any steel to a side that were all too easily cut through. There remains the attacking quality to secure plenty more big wins in this group and in Hakan Calhanoglu they have a midfielder capable of scoring from anywhere, including with a scuffed volley from 25 yards out.
Turkey remain in the driving seat in Group G but with Montenegro, the Netherlands and Norway all just a point behind them on six they will feel that they wasted a real opportunity to stamp their mark on their rivals.