WC Qualifiers Roundup: Amazing England, Woeful Italy and the Luck of the Irish
With the first round of World Cup qualifying starting today, people had an exciting chance to see how some of the big guns of international football were recovering after this summer's European Championships.
Today's games, despite being such an early stage of the process, could mean more than many people might expect.
With only 10 games (and in some cases just 8) to play, every single match is crucial when it comes to qualification for Brazil 2014.
With the exception of European and World Champions Spain, all the best teams in Europe were on show tonight, seeing if they could stamp their mark on their respective groups at this very early stage of proceedings.
Key matches to look out for in Round 1 were Germany taking on the minnows of the Faroe Islands at home, England's devilish journey away to Moldova and a tricky-looking home game for the Dutch, who were looking to recover after this summer, against Turkey.
Here is a run-down of the matches, and how all the big—and not-so-big—boys faired.
Croatia 1 - 0 Macedonia
Wales 0 - 2 Belgium
Croatia were the standout team in this season's European Championships. They were exceedingly unlucky to have been drawn into a group that would see both eventual finalists, Italy and Spain, progressing through.
However they looked shaky at best tonight, narrowly beating group underdogs Macedonia 1-0 in Zagreb.
It was a goal from Everton striker Nikita Jelavic that would eventually settle the match, ensuring that the Croats didn't lose early ground on group favourites Belgium.
The Belgians are a team jam-packed with talents from across the top leagues in the world.
Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen, Marouane Fellaini and Kevin Mirallas were just some of the world-class players on show tonight in their victory over Wales.
I would be shocked to see any sides challenging Belgium and Croatia for the top place in Group 1.
Tonight they both kicked off their campaigns with a win, only adding to the excitement of what should be one of the closest and most interesting groups in this year's European qualifying.
Malta 0 - 1 Armenia
Bulgaria 2 - 2 Italy
Armenia kicked off their qualifying campaign with a somewhat surprising win away at Malta.
Surprising in the sense that the small island country didn't concede more goals to the Eastern European side.
However, in a group that includes Italy, Denmark and the Czech Republic, the result may mean little to the final outcome of the group.
That being said, the Armenians will be topping the group tonight, after Italy were shocked away to Bulgaria.
The Bulgarians took the lead with a goal from Stanislav Manolev on the half-hour mark.
However, goals in the 37th and 40th minute from Pablo Osvaldo meant that the Italians took the lead going into half-time.
The one-goal margin would remain until the 66th minute when Georgi Milanov of Litex Lovech levelled things up.
Despite their pedigree, the men from Italy could do nothing about the scoreline, and slumped to a somewhat humiliating opening-day draw.
The Italians will bounce back, but after Denmark's terrific showing during Euro 2012, they cannot afford to drop too many more points against teams they should be beating comfortably.
Kazakhstan 1 - 2 Republic of Ireland
Germany 3 - 0 Faroe Islands
The Republic of Ireland could not have had a luckier escape in their first match of qualification.
Having trailed to a 38th-minute goal from Kairat Nurdauletov, it seemed for most of this match that they would mark the start of this group campaign with a devastating loss.
A 1-0 defeat would have surely made it almost impossible (in a group with the ever-efficient Germans) to go on and top the table outright.
However, an 89th-minute penalty from legendary figure Robbie Keane, followed just a minute later by a Kevin Doyle goal, meant that somehow the Republic took all three points away from the land of Borat.
A second-string Germany side went out and did was what required against the Faroe Islands in their clash in Munich.
Legendary International striker Miroslav Klose started the match, with no doubt the intention of Joachim Loew being that Miro could add to his already terrific tally.
However, goals from Dortmund's Mario Gotze and a brace from Mesut Ozil of Real Madrid that secured the three points for the Nationalmannschaft.
Germany shouldn't have too much trouble getting out of this group as top dogs.
Estonia 0 - 2 Romania
Andorra 0 - 5 Hungary
Netherlands 2 - 0 Turkey
It seems as though Estonia's European championship campaign was a golden moment in their country's footballing history.
Despite being thrashed by the ROI in the playoff round, Estonia managed to come second in a challenging group to reach that stage.
It seems as though they will not be repeating that feat however, after a disappointing opening-day loss at home to the Romanians.
The Hungarians kicked off their group stage in style, with a mauling of perennial whipping boys Andorra.
In fairness to Andorra, a nation with an estimated population of just 85,000 citizens can never really be expected to achieve much in this game, and their continued participation in qualification for this tournament and the European Championships is a small victory in itself.
The Dutch bounced back from their nightmarish Euro 2012 outing with a confident victory over an impressive-looking Turkish side.
Dutch talisman Robin van Persie put the men in Orange ahead, before a 90th-minute goal from up-and-coming star Luciano Narsingh of PSV Eindhoven sealed the victory.
This group is likely to be contested between these two sides, and so this result could be imperative come the end of qualification.
Albania 3 - 1 Cyprus
Slovenia 0 - 2 Switzerland
Iceland 2 - 0 Norway
I'm not going to lie, it baffles me that a group containing six teams cannot boast a single side that managed to qualify for Euro 2012. Whereas Groups 3 (Germany, ROI and Sweden) and 8 (England, Ukraine and Poland) both have three!
And that's not to mention Group 9, which somehow has France and Spain pitted together.
Anyway, before a ball was kicked, many fans would probably have expected either Switzerland or Norway to run out as the eventual winners of this section.
Unsurprisingly, then, the Swiss kicked off in style with a more than decent (if you take the calibre of quality in the group into account) away victory over Slovenia, who not only qualified for the last World Cup but came shockingly close to making it into the last 16.
Norway, however, were not so lucky, going down 2-0 to Scandinavian rivals Iceland.
Actually, the Icelandic under-21 side were among only eight teams (along with Switzerland) to make it into the 2011 U-21 European Championships.
Who's to say that in a group as open as this one, they cannot pull off a major upset and make it to their first-ever finals?
The other game in the group ended 3-1, Albania over Cyprus. If I'm honest, I don't really have much more to say about that.
How does this group exist?!
Russia 2 - 0 Northern Ireland
Azerbaijan 1 - 1 Israel
Luxembourg 1 - 2 Portugal
In the first game of this tournament's European qualification, Russia absolutely ripped apart the Northern Irish side to take a deserved victory away from the Lokomotiv Stadium.
In reality, the result was never really in doubt from the early moments of the game. The gap in class between the two sides was immanently evident, and anything less than a win for the side who were desperately unlucky to miss out on a quarterfinal place in Euro 2012 would have been a footballing travesty.
This group will be contested on the most part between the Russians and the Portuguese (who were themselves unlucky not to make it through to the final of this summer's tournament).
But it was certainly not plain sailing for Ronaldo and his men in their opening fixture away to Luxembourg.
In fact, despite this game ending in defeat for the Luxembourgians, they can really take the moral victory away from this one.
Portugal would have been expected to go out and give this side an absolute tonking.
Instead, they scraped to a narrow 2-1 victory, coming back from 1-0 down with goals from Ronaldo and Helder Postiga.
Perhaps this close result should be put down to opening-round nerves.
The other game in this group saw two sides who realistically will hold very little hope of making it to the finals in Brazil.
This result somewhat epitomises that, with neither team really showing any real sort of dominance over the other.
Azerbaijan and Israel are both sides who some would argue should be in the Asian section of qualifying as opposed to the European one.
Neither of them will be likely to feature as a European representative in a couple of years, and both are really just here to make up the numbers.
Liechtenstein 1 - 8 Bosnia-Herzegovina
Lithuania 1 - 1 Slovakia
Latvia 1 - 2 Greece
The Bosnians showed that their European Championship qualifying campaign wasn't just a one off today, with this absolute demolition of Liechtenstein.
OK, so maybe their opponents weren't of the same calibre that they might be facing when it comes to the finals themselves, but to go out and perform as well as they did today against any international side (other than San Marino) says a lot about a team.
Led by Manchester City striker Edin Dzeko—who scored a hat trick in today's match—Bosnia have a very good chance of making it through this somewhat easy group.
What made the result even better for Dzeko and Co. was the fact that one of their biggest rivals in the section, Slovakia, failed to take all three points from minnows Lithuania.
In truth it could have been worse for the Slovaks, who had fallen behind early on in the match.
The beauty of a group like this, without a dominant "top seed," means practically any sort of result is possible when it comes to the group winners.
Also capitalising on the poor Slovakian result were the Greeks.
Greece and Latvia were the bottom two ranked sides at Euro 2004. The Latvians were drawn into a group with Holland, Germany and the Czech Republic. I can't remember what happened to Greece.
It seems as though the Greeks are looking to continue their usual style of football—defensive-minded and almost always winning by a single goal.
Don't let the close result fool you, this is the Greeks all over.
But in regards to this group, Bosnia definitely have the edge at this current moment in time.
Montenegro 2 - 2 Poland
Moldova 0 - 5 England
It was always going to be a "damned if you do, and damned if you don't" sort of result for England tonight.
If they went out there, played abysmally and either dropped points or just edged a one-goal victory, then the papers and critics would be out in force labelling the players as "lazy" and "not fit to wear the shirt."
However, despite a terrific performance that culminated in a 5-0 demolition, Gerrard and Co. will get no real praise tomorrow either.
This match was "easy after all, and we would expect nothing less than a thrashing."
Tell that to Portugal and Italy.
In fact, England were really the only one of the European elite who came out of their opening fixture with a resounding victory—even the Germans could only manage 3-0 at home to a country nearly half the size (in terms of population) as Maidstone. What, you've never heard of it? Look it up!
They looked sharp and completely alert throughout, placing great deals of pressure on Moldova both offensively and defensively.
All in all, it was an amazing performance from Roy Hodgson's men. Well done, England.
The other result in Group 8 saw the two sides more than likely battling it out for second in the group ending on level scores.
The Poles were terrific in Euro 2012—in the first half of their matches, that is, before an almost completely different looking side came out for the second half.
They will need to improve upon that if they are to have a chance of making it into back-to-back tournaments.
Georgia 1 - 0 Belarus
Finland 0 - 1 France
Georgia and Belarus are another pairing of teams that fall into the bracket of having no hope.
In a group that contains not only former world and European champions France, but also the current holders of both of those titles, Spain, it will be nearly impossible for either of these sides to mount a genuine challenge for the finals in two years' time.
Georgia did their already limited chances no damage, however, with this 1-0 victory over the men from Belarus. I suppose they have given themselves the greatest of outside chances!
The French began their push for the finals in their usual slow style. France have made a habit of doing things the hardest way possible in recent years.
Their last two major finals have been poor to say the least, and they will struggle greatly this year to get straight out of a group that many will expect the Spaniards to top.
Their goal tonight came from the seemingly revitalised Abou Diaby, who has shone for Arsenal at the start of this season.
It wasn't comprehensive, but a win's a win for the French.
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