Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 November 2019

Euro 2020 qualifiers - what we learnt: Ageless Cristiano Ronaldo shows no signs of slowing down

Tough times for the Baltic states, while the Netherlands, England, Italy and Portugal all enjoy comfortable victories

Whatever the excesses of Euro 2020, a competition that will next summer feature 24 teams, after 55 have passed through not one but two different tournaments to eliminate 31 of them, the latest two rounds of qualifiers can hardly be accused of suffering idle fatigue.

No fewer than 168 goals, at an average of 3.36 per game, were scored between Thursday and Tuesday.

Granted, some of the flood came via the channels European football’s governors have tried to dam up over the years, but remain an unavoidable part of the international football landscape.

There will always be some mismatches, in qualifying stages, where the mighty bully the minnows. A few suffered badly.

Pity, for instance, Latvia, who once upon a time were standard-bearers for underdog ambitions at the European championship – they reached the finals in 2004, when the tournament was still a streamlined 16-country event. In the last week, Latvia scored no goals while shipping six against Austria and then two at home to North Macedonia.

These are tough times for all the Baltic states. In Lithuania, Cristiano Ronaldo alone scored four times in one night, taking his total for his week’s work with Portugal to five, and his overall tally for his country to a staggering 93 in 160 appearances.

It does not seem fanciful to imagine the ageless icon reaching his centenary during the finals, when Ronaldo will, assuming no mishaps, be the 35-year-old skipper of a Portugal defending their title.

The Portuguese are, since June, also the holders of the Uefa Nations League, the competition partly designed to establish a secondary route to the Euros by making success in its various, seeded divisions a path directly into qualifying play-offs for countries who do not make it into the top two of their orthodox qualifying groups.

It makes for a complicated structure, but a few nations, after this week’s activity, feel grateful for the invention, breathing a sigh of relief they last year established the Nations League play-off backstop as a last resort.

Scotland, after successive home defeats, to Russia and 4-0 to Belgium, are among the most comforted. The Scots, who looked on enviously at Euro 2016, where the 24-team format featured all four other teams from the British Isles – Ireland, Northern Ireland, England and semi-finalists Wales – are now lying fifth of the six in Group I, propped up only by San Marino.

The Netherlands, the most conspicuous absentees from the last Euros, and not at the last World Cup either, may still need their play-off get-out-of-jail card.

The Dutch were runners-up in the Nations League, a mark of their revival under Ronald Koeman’s management.

They also provided some of the most captivating of the week’s end-to-end entertainment, coming from a goal down in Germany to win 4-2. But they remain third in Group C, three points behind Germany and Northern Ireland, albeit with a game in hand.

The Dutch have their two fixtures against the Northern Irish still to play and, having lost 3-2 to Germany in their home fixture, are better on head-to-head than their traditional rivals.

But The Netherlands, who beat Estonia 4-0 on Monday, have endured too many brittle nights in the recent past to take too much for granted.

“Our routines are getting sharper, and there is a pleasing development in the team,” said Koeman, demanding a win against Northern Ireland in the next fixture, in Rotterdam. “Then we’ll be close to the next step.”

Also rebounding are Italy, who now have six wins out of six in their group. Their victories in Armenia and in Finland featured some contentious refereeing decisions – there is no VAR in Euro 2020 qualifying – going to their benefit and a cushion at the top of Group J that means one more victory could cement their place in the finals.

Italy, remember, did not reach the World Cup in Russia, so even if some of their triumphs under Roberto Mancini have been scratchy in style, morale is being boosted.

Others with a 100 percent record are Spain, Belgium and England, whose 5-3 win over Kosovo in Southampton boosted the week’s high goal-average in a rollercoaster manner: An early lead for the visitors; five first-half England goals in response; and a Kosovar fightback in the second period.

Kosovo, in their debut European championship qualifying campaign, already have a play-off spot in their back pockets. Their hope is that they may not need it. They trail the Czech Republic, whom Kosovo beat 2-1 last week, by a point.

There are three matches each left for the second- and third-placed sides, including Kosovo's trip to the Czech Republic.

Updated: September 12, 2019 07:57 AM

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