Winners and Losers from Euro 2016 Qualifiers on September 7
The World Cup remains fresh in the memory, but already competitive international football has returned with the beginning of qualification for Euro 2016.
54 European nations are set to compete in nine groups for the chance to join hosts France in just under two years.
Eight matches took place on Sunday, with a total of 25 goals scored (seven of them in one match!)
In this article, we look back over the day’s games and pick some winners and losers.
Winners: Republic of Ireland
Martin O’Neill’s competitive career as the Republic of Ireland manager got off to a fine start with a 2-1 victory away in Georgia.
Aiden McGeady was the star man for the visitors.
He opened the scoring on 23 minutes, only for Tornike Okriashvili to respond for the Eastern Europeans 15 minutes later.
The Irish demonstrated their confidence and their fluidity over the second half, with McGeady looking particularly threatening. The Everton winger eventually settled the contest, continuing his fine start to the season with a delicious late strike.
O’Neill expressed his contentment to RTE after the match (via BBC Sport), "It was a great win for us,” he began, “I couldn't be more pleased and the boys are delighted,"
"The winner was a stroke of genius from a really gifted footballer."
One senses that O’Neill and his assistant, Roy Keane, will enjoy watching their troops tackle the upcoming challenges to be found in Group D.
Losers: Portugal and Paulo Bento
European Championship Qualification is barely a day old, but already Portugal have become the joke of the continent.
The Seleccao followed on from their disappointing World Cup with an unthinkable home defeat against minnows Albania.
For 50 minutes Paulo Bento’s men struggled to open the scoring. Then they were hit with Albania’s Bekim Balaj, a 23-year-old forward who currently plies his trade in the Czech Republic with Slavia Prague.
Balaj’s terrific volley gave Rui Patricio no chance and appeared to stun Portugal into submission. The team, after that, were a shadow of the emphatic outfit they were when ousting Sweden from the World Cup qualification series.
The defeat has heaped pressure on Bento, who was already under the spotlight following Portugal’s inability to escape from an (admittedly difficult) World Cup group.
Ahead of the match, as per Goal.com, the coach decided to omit Cristiano Ronaldo from his squad, citing the forward’s physical condition. Oh how the Southern Europeans could have done with Ronaldo’s aura and offensive qualities in Aveiro…albeit against a side ranked 70th in the world!
Literally speaking, Scotland, who went down 2-1 away in Germany, were “losers” on the day. However, Gordon Strachan can take many positives from his team’s performance and will have been encouraged by his side’s spirit and endeavour in Dortmund.
The extended European Championship qualifying programmes opens up opportunities for nations of the calibre of Scotland to progress to the tournament proper.
They may head back to Great Britain tonight sitting in fifth place in Group D, but the Scots will feel optimistic about their chances of edging ahead of the likes of Poland and Georgia to seal a qualifying berth.
Ike Anya levelled for the visitors following Thomas Muller’s opener, but unfortunately the "interpreter of space" struck again with 20 minutes to play. It was Gordon Strachan’s side’s first defeat in a year, and the former Manchester United midfielder will not anticipate too many more to come over the coming months.
As considered previously, Group F is one of the more open groups. While this will fuel optimism for the likes of Finland and Northern Ireland, it will not be such encouraging news for Greece.
The Greeks are typically strong qualifiers—they have made it to the last two World Cup finals and the last three European Championships—however, they might have their work cut out in this pool.
In this context, Greece’s opening defeat to Romania represents a disaster.
George Georgakopoulos of Ekathimerini.com described their 3-1 home loss as “one of [their] poorest home matches in recent memory,” and he isn’t far wrong.
Despite the visitors going down to 10 men following the dismissal of Ciprian Marica, notoriously defensive Greece were unable to respond to the same player’s 10th-minute penalty.
Claudio Ranieri’s first game as Greece manager couldn’t have gone much worse and, with Finland away and Northern Ireland at home in October, he will need to find a winning formula as soon as possible.
Winners: Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland, like Scotland, will feel optimistic about their chances of sneaking into the European Championships proper due to the extended tournament and qualification system.
At first glance, Group F appears to be one of the more open groups. Romania and Greece both have recent experience of qualifying for major tournaments, but the likes of Finland, Hungary and Northern Ireland are unlikely to be overawed.
An opening away trip to Hungary was an ideal opportunity for the Green and White Army to assert themselves within the selection.
They didn’t disappoint, showing character and skill to not only beat Hungary on their own patch, but also in coming from behind to do so.
Kyle Lafferty hadn’t scored in more than two years when he decided to turn this particular tie in Northern Ireland’s favour. He first played creator, helping Niall McGinn to cancel out Tamas Priskin’s opener, before sealing the win with a late goal.
It feels a little trite to put Gibraltar in this list, after all, the islanders have only just made their competitive international debut.
However, a 7-0 defeat at home to Poland doesn’t bode particularly well—it certainly wasn’t the kind of scoreline the Llanitos would have hoped for to mark such a historic occasion.
The new boys were decimated by the Poles, who don’t exactly represent the summit of European competition themselves, having failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup.
Robert Lewandowski scored four goals—doing wonders for his ambition to eclipse the great Wlodzimierz Lubanski as the country’s all-time top goalscorer.
Kamil Grosicki (two) and Lukasz Szukala also got among the goals.
In fact, Lubanski himself, now in his late 60s, might have fancied his chances of coming out of retirement and bagging against the minnows.
Gibraltar, a team made up largely of amateurs, surely have no chance of progressing to the tournament and are likely to merely add their names to the likes of San Marino, Andorra and Malta as bywords for inadequate competitors.
Jack Bell of the New York Times is just one journalist to have written a complaint about the presence of such teams in the qualification programme.