World Cup Qualifiers - Europe

World Cup Qualifiers - Europe (163)

Jorginho missed a late penalty as Italy were held to a 1-1 draw by Switzerland in Friday's eventful contest at Stadio Olimpico, leaving both sides' automatic qualifying hopes for the 2022 World Cup in the balance. 

There was nothing to separate the teams at the top of Group C in terms of points accrued heading into the contest and that is how it remained after a gripping 90 minutes in Rome. 

The Azzurri fell behind to a powerful Silvan Widmer drive after 11 minutes but hit back through fellow right-back Giovanni Di Lorenzo's header before half-time. 

European champions Italy had a glorious chance to win the game in the 90th minute and take control at the summit, but Jorginho skied his spot-kick to set up a tense final round of fixtures. 

France boss Didier Deschamps confirmed Karim Benzema will be available for their penultimate World Cup qualifier against Kazakhstan on Saturday.

The world champions sit top of Group D and will qualify for Qatar 2022 if they win either of their final two games against Kazakhstan and Finland.

Benzema was taken off in the 83rd minute of Real Madrid's 2-1 win over Rayo Vallecano by coach Carlo Ancelotti last weekend, but Deschamps said he is on course to play for his country despite a "small problem".

At a media conference ahead of Saturday's match, the former Monaco and Juventus head coach was asked about the availability of Benzema and reassured reporters. He said: "He didn't do a collective session but did some very good [individual sessions]. We took no risks.

"Karim also knows how to manage himself after a small problem with Madrid. He will participate in the session and will be available this Saturday."

Deschamps also hinted he is considering starting Bayern Munich's Kingsley Coman, saying: "Coman is an option out wide but not only on this match. He is an option for the start or during the match.

"It depends on whether we have the ball or not. This requires defensive adjustments on the coverage of the areas. This may be an option."

France go into the game against Kazakhstan as heavy favourites, with the visitors to the Parc des Princes bottom of the group having taken just three points from seven games, but Deschamps refuses to take them lightly.

Deschamps, who saw France win 2-0 in the reverse fixture in March, added: "It wasn't an easy game there. I had Kazakhstan's last two games scouted. There is a well-defined system choice.

"I am not going to talk about the weak points. The team knows how to defend and knows that we have to make efforts together. It is a block, a team that does not give up and fights to the end.

"We must not underestimate this team and respect them as we did in the first game."

Captain Hugo Lloris also faced the media and emphasised the need for Les Bleus to try and wrap up qualification at the first time of asking against Kazakhstan.

The Tottenham goalkeeper said: "We will say that we know what we have to do, and that is to ensure a victory on Saturday. This would be ideal to stamp our ticket for Qatar.

"Once again everything remains to be done on the field against an opponent who will do everything to challenge us. We will have to score quickly and try to have a good time with our supporters and continue our phase of progression after winning the Nations League."

France's last game was the Nations League final success against Spain in October, and when asked about the 2-1 win, Lloris said: "When you win there is always a smile. We were honest about our situation after the Euros. There were moments of doubt but we showed our mental and collective strength through adversity.

"The matches against Belgium and Spain bear witness to this. It is always good to win with the national team, it has a special feel. The goal now is Qatar and we have to do the job on Saturday."

Harry Kane scored a perfect hat-trick as England moved within one point of qualification for the 2022 World Cup after a ruthless first-half performance saw them win 5-0 against Albania at Wembley Stadium on Friday.

Kane's treble and goals from Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson - all in the first 45 minutes - sealed a comfortable win for the Three Lions, leaving them needing only to avoid defeat in San Marino on Monday in their final game in Group I to book their place at Qatar 2022.

The visitors were all over the place defensively, looking a shadow of the team that had won three of their previous four away games in the group.

England slowed things down in the second half with the game already well won and Gareth Southgate was even able to rest Kane for the final 30 minutes ahead of the trip to San Marino.

The hosts took the lead in the ninth minute when a superb free-kick from Reece James found an unmarked Maguire at the back post and the Manchester United man thundered his header past Thomas Strakosha.

Myrto Uzuni had a glorious chance to equalise five minutes later when Kyle Walker played a loose pass back to Jordan Pickford, but England's goalkeeper denied him.

It was 2-0 in the 18th minute, Henderson playing a one-two with Phil Foden on the right before lifting in a delicate cross to give Kane a simple header.

Henderson then got in on the act himself as he played another one-two, this time with Kane, and the Liverpool captain finished it off himself with his left foot to make it 3-0 before the half-hour mark.

Kane got his second and England's fourth in the 34th minute by firing past Strakosha with his left foot after being played in by Raheem Sterling. It was the England skipper's 38th competitive goal for England, beating the record set by Wayne Rooney.

The Tottenham man then completed his perfect hat-trick in first-half stoppage time when he executed a sublime scissor kick with his right foot from a Foden corner to make it 5-0 before the break.

The second half was a much quieter affair, though Southgate was able to give a senior international debut to Arsenal youngster Emile Smith Rowe, who replaced Raheem Sterling with 15 minutes remaining. 

What does it mean? Southgate continues to impress

This game was Gareth Southgate's 67th in charge of England, the joint-most of any England manager since Sir Bobby Robson left in 1990, and equalling Sven-Goran Eriksson's tally between 2001 and 2006.

Southgate has won more games (43) than Eriksson could (40) and his latest victory was never in doubt here.

A single point in San Marino will see England qualify for Qatar 2022, and ensure that the Three Lions have progressed to every major tournament since Euro 2008.

Defence is the best form of attack for England

Southgate has often been criticised for his team selections being on the cautious side, and he went into this one with five defenders and two defensive-minded midfielders in his starting XI.

His team then proceeded to tear Albania to shreds in the first half, having 71 per cent of the ball, taking 11 shots and banging in five goals.

England have now scored 42 goals in 2021 - their most ever in a calendar year, overtaking their previous record of 39 in 1908.

Lack of discipline hurts Albania

Albania have had a good qualifying campaign, winning five of their previous eight games heading into this.

They always looked to be on a hiding to nothing against a determined England though and did not help themselves by picking up three bookings in first 25 minutes, making looking after Sterling, Foden and Kane all the trickier.

Edoardo Reja's team were either too strong or too weak in the tackle, only winning 36.9 per cent of their duels.

What’s next?

England travel to San Marino while Albania host Andorra in the final round of UEFA World Cup qualifiers in Group I on Monday.

Belgium boss Roberto Martinez has insisted that qualifying for the World Cup remains his priority, explaining he will take it slow with Eden Hazard as the Real Madrid forward makes his way back to full fitness.

The Red Devils are five points clear at the top of Group E with two games left to play and can seal their spot at the World Cup with a win over Estonia on Saturday.

Hazard has not started a game at club or international level since the 3-2 defeat against France in the semi-finals of the Nations League last month, however, with his last start for Madrid coming in a 2-1 loss to Sheriff on September 28.

The 30-year-old is set to feature in some way over Belgium's next two games, but Martinez is more concerned with his side confirming their place at the World Cup.

"At the moment all our work is based on trying to qualify," Martinez said ahead of the game against Estonia. "If we need two games to qualify, so be it, and that's our approach.

"If we can qualify with our home game in front of our fans then it's going to be another reset on how we approach the last game [against Wales], but it's important for us that we compete to qualify for the World Cup and try to preserve our position in the world rankings.

"Then it comes to bearing in mind all the [players'] physical states. In the case of Eden he hasn't played a lot of football so every day that we assess here we take a lot into consideration, the same way that we do with every single player that we have.

"The first goal is to qualify for the World Cup and see when we can do that."

Martinez explained that he was pleased with the former Chelsea winger's work in training since arriving for national team duty, but warned that Hazard is unlikely to be fit enough to play for a full match.

"Obviously, when you welcome Eden Hazard into the camp it's just to assess the work that he can do here and I've been very pleased in that respect," Martinez continued. 

"He looks happy, he looks forward to the game and then I just feel that we're going to use how he feels during the game to see if he can play 90 [minutes] or not.

"I would be surprised if he can play 90 at this stage [although] it depends a lot on what type of game we get. With Eden, we're going to go slowly and make sure we make good forward steps.

"I see him in a very, very good mental state, he looks really sharp, so for me, it's a question of seeing how long he can play rather than anything else."

After facing Estonia, Belgium's final Group E game is on Tuesday against Wales, who are five points behind them in the standings.

Gareth Bale is determined to mark his landmark 100th cap for Wales by helping to push his side closer towards a first World Cup appearance in 64 years.

Real Madrid forward Bale has been out of action since sustaining a hamstring injury in Wales' goalless draw with Estonia on September 8, missing his club's last 13 matches.

The 32-year-old's three appearances for the Dragons this season is as many as he has managed in all competitions for Madrid since returning from a loan stint with Tottenham.

Despite his latest spell on the sidelines, Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti gave his blessing for Bale to link up with Robert Page's side for their games with Belarus and Belgium.

Bale has declared himself ready for Saturday's clash with Belarus, which would make him just the second player after Chris Gunter (106) to reach a century of caps for Wales.

"I'm not in peak condition like I was before, but I've worked as hard as ever to get back in time," Bale said at a pre-match news conference on Friday.

"I'm as fit as I can be but the match fitness is not there. All I can do is give my best. I'm not sure I'll be able to play the whole game, but I'm here to give 100 per cent.

"Reaching 100 caps will be an incredible achievement. It's nice for me and my family, but the most important thing is the game and not the occasion.

"Hopefully I can enjoy it after the game, which is [a] must-win for us. For the time being it's easy to wander back but all focus needs to be on the game."

 

Bale has played in two European Championships with Wales, reaching the semi-finals in 2016 and last 16 earlier this year, but has yet to have a taste of the World Cup.

The Dragons are already assured of a spot in March's play-offs, but they are now aiming to finish above the Czech Republic in second place in Group E to secure a home tie.

For Bale, a winner of 13 trophies at club level, including four Champions Leagues, reaching a first World Cup since 1958 with Wales is next on his wishlist.

"We've got to try to push and qualify for the World Cup now. It's an important game for us to win," he said.

"We've all [got to] give it our 100 per cent best, never have any regrets and always fight to the end. We have a chance to do it now and we have to try and capitalise on it."

Asked if he would swap one of his European Cup triumphs to qualify for the World Cup, Bale said: "It's difficult to say, but we'll fight until the death to achieve that.

"We'll fight as hard as we can in these last couple of games."

Bale's importance to Wales since making his first appearance against Trinidad and Tobago in May 2006 cannot be understated.

Wales have won 48 and drawn 14 of the previous 99 games with Bale in their side for a win rate of 48.5 per cent, which drops to 27.7 per cent in the 47 games he has not played in.

The Madrid man has scored 36 goals for the Dragons, 20 of those coming during Chris Coleman's tenure between 2012 and 2017.

He also scored once under Brian Flynn, two under John Toshack, three during the late Gary Speed's reign, three under current incumbent Page and seven with Ryan Giggs in charge.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Wales' run to the Euro semi-finals, 2016 was Bale's most prolific calendar year with seven strikes, followed by the five he managed in 2015 and 2018.

Bale has faced 44 different opponents across his 15-year international career, with Finland the side he has come up against most often (six times), while Andorra, Belarus and China (three goals against each) are his favourite opponents.

Speaking alongside Bale on Friday, interim head coach Page said: "Looking back at Euro 2016 when I was a supporter was tremendous and being part of his journey, he's just as enthusiastic today as he was then. 

"It's been a pleasure to work with him and be a part of his journey. Humble is the right word. He's a prankster among the group. He's jovial and wears the armband with pride. 

"He's absolutely a superstar and I do think a lot of youngsters look up to him and the way he takes care of himself. He's been an inspiration to a lot of children."

Hansi Flick believes everyone is clamouring to play for Germany after he continued his fine start to life as head coach with a crushing 9-0 win over 10-man Liechtenstein in World Cup qualifying on Thursday.

Germany were in cruise control following Jens Hofer's early red card, with Ilkay Gundogan, Leroy Sane and Marco Reus adding to a Daniel Kaufmann own goal to put Die Mannschaft 4-0 up at half-time.

Sane added a fifth early in the second period, while a brace from Thomas Muller, a fine Ridle Baku strike and an own goal from Maximilian Goppel sealed the rout late on.

The result meant Flick became the first Germany head coach to win his first six matches in charge, taking the record outright from former boss Joachim Low.

And former Bayern Munich coach Flick said his job is made easier by the desire of Germany's stars to secure a spot in his first-choice XI.

"Of course I'm satisfied," he told RTL. "The atmosphere was just fantastic. That was the third home game we had like that. The team and the fans, that's a good combination.

"We are happy about the quality, everyone wants to join this team, that makes it easy for us.

"It is extremely important that everyone goes along with the way we want to play, and that's the impression we have."

Germany, whose progress to next year's World Cup in Qatar had already been secured before the game in Wolfsburg, wrap up their Group J campaign against Armenia on Sunday.

It has been a routine qualification for the 2014 winners, with eight victories from their nine games so far.

Muller, though, said it is important to not get carried away until they have tested themselves against tougher opposition.

"Of course, you always have to put into perspective the fact that we don't have any extremely difficult opponents in our group," he said. "But we always wanted the next and the next goal so it was a great evening."

Reus shared his team-mate's sentiments, adding: "It was just nice, but you can't say how close we are to the top of the world as the opponents weren't at the level we will be challenged at.

"These games are still good because you are able to practice important things. It was fun."

Luis Enrique insisted Spain will be going for the win against Sweden on Sunday even though a draw would be sufficient for his team to win Group B and qualify for next year's World Cup in Qatar.

Spain moved top of the group after beating Greece 1-0 in Athens, taking advantage of Sweden surprisingly losing 2-0 in Georgia earlier on Thursday.

A first-half penalty from Pablo Sarabia was enough to secure victory for La Roja and means Spain now have their fate in their own hands, but Luis Enrique said they will still go for the three points when they host Sweden in Seville in their final group game.

"On Sunday we will go out to win as we do every game against a very difficult opponent, but one that we know very well," Spain head coach Luis Enrique told reporters.

"I hope that the fans will be the 12th player for us."

Luis Enrique was happy with how his team played in Greece and said that he saw improvements from the home side from their first meeting in the group, despite the fact that the reverse game in March finished 1-1.

"Greece has improved a lot since the first game we played in Spain," he added. "Thanks to the attitude and effort of my players, we have taken the game forward against a very hard-working team.

"I think we could have played better. We had a first part of control in which we neutralised their attack.

"I was happy with the attitude of the team. They have not been gripped, which in these games is not easy.

"The players have done a great job, they have overcome difficulties and are ambitious.

"We have a positive dynamic. There are always things to improve, but that we receive support is due to the effort of the team."

Luis Enrique allayed fears about Gavi after the teenage midfielder came off in the second half with what appeared to be a facial injury, saying that he is "fine". The Barcelona starlet was impressive once again, completing 100 per cent of his 43 passes, including 32 in the opposition half.

Spain's game against Sweden will be played at Estadio La Cartuja in Seville, and Luis Enrique emphasised again he wants the fans to roar his team over the line on Sunday.

"In my time as a player we qualified for a World Cup against Denmark in Seville. I don't remember a similar game in my career in which the fans carried us like that day," he said, recalling the qualifier for the 1994 World Cup against Denmark, which Spain won 1-0.

"La Cartuja has to bounce."

Portugal head coach Fernando Santos insisted there was little difference between a win and a draw against the Republic of Ireland as World Cup qualifying would still be decided against Serbia.

Santos' side were held to a goalless draw in Thursday's clash with Ireland, who have just one win to their name in World Cup qualifying.

The Euro 2016 winners had previously embarked on a five-game winning run across all competitions, scoring 16 times, but could manage just three shots on target in Dublin.

The stalemate leaves Portugal and Serbia both on 17 points with one game remaining and the top two will meet in Lisbon on Sunday in Group A's winner-takes-all decider.

Asked if he was happy with the result, Santos told RT3: "Naturally. In terms of qualification, winning 5-0 or drawing here was the same thing.

"Of course, I would have preferred to win 5-0, but the result is positive. Serbia have to play in our stadium to win the game.

"Obviously we wanted to win, we didn't want to draw, that's not what we came here for. They're a very aggressive and very physical opponent.

"In the attacking organisation, we let them create danger. The players tried but we always had difficulties – they were quick to close spaces."

Santos, who insisted he was "convinced" Portugal would still qualify, left out the likes of Ruben Dias, Bernardo Silva and Joao Cancelo for the visit to the Republic of Ireland.

He will also be without Pepe against Serbia after the centre-back was dismissed late on for two bookable offences.

Asked for clarification whether he had spared players to avoid yellow-card accumulated suspensions, Santos added: "I saved them because you never know if the players are conditioned or not.

"I wanted to have Pepe for the game, but I'm going to sleep well. We'll find the right players [for the Serbia game]."

Hansi Flick became the first Germany head coach to win his first six matches in charge after his side crushed Liechtenstein 9-0 in World Cup qualifying Group J on Thursday. 

The former Bayern Munich boss kicked off his reign with a 2-0 win over these opponents in September and always looked like taking the outright record from Joachim Low following Ilkay Gundogan's early penalty, given for a foul which saw a red card issued to Jens Hofer.

Die Mannschaft, whose progress to next year's World Cup in Qatar had already been secured before the game in Wolfsburg, took full advantage of their numerical superiority, racing into a 4-0 half-time lead thanks to a Daniel Kaufmann own goal and strikes from Leroy Sane and Marco Reus. 

Sane added a fifth early in the second period, while a brace from Thomas Muller, a fine Ridle Baku strike and an own goal from Maximilian Goppel sealed a resounding win late on.

Gundogan stroked home from the penalty spot in the 11th minute after Hofer had kicked Leon Goretzka in the throat – an eye-watering challenge that resulted in the defender's dismissal.

Kaufmann prodded into his own net from Christian Gunter's low cross nine minutes later to double Germany's advantage, before Sane coolly slid past Benjamin Buchel after being played in by Goretzka.

Reus then scored a third goal in the space of just three minutes and 31 seconds, the Borussia Dortmund man slotting in after Buchel had made a mess of a deep cross.

Germany picked up where they left off at the start of the second period, Sane claiming his second with a scuffed shot from 10 yards in the 49th minute.

Muller scored with two close-range finishes either side of a superb Baku effort, while the unfortunate Goppel headed into his own net to wrap up the scoring in the 89th minute.

 

Portugal were held to a goalless draw by the Republic of Ireland to leave Sunday's clash with Serbia as the decider for top spot in World Cup qualifying Group A.

Fernando Santos' men had scored 16 goals during their five-game winning streak across all competitions but could only muster two shots on target during a frustrating outing in Dublin.

Cristiano Ronaldo went the closest, though even the all-time leading scorer in men's international football could not break the deadlock in Thursday's clash.

The visitors, who saw Pepe dismissed late on for two bookable offences, and Serbia both sit on 17 points with one game remaining as the latter travel to Lisbon for a winner-takes-all decider.

Andre Silva forced the first save of the contest from Gavin Bazunu before Seamus Coleman's excellent last-ditch block denied Ronaldo as the visitors dominated the early proceedings.

However, the Republic of Ireland responded well and should have taken the lead on the stroke of half-time but Chiedozie Ogbene could only head over from close range.

Stephen Kenny's men continued industriously after the interval and almost punished Matheus Nunes' concentration lapse when Josh Cullen curled into Rui Patricio's hands.

Ronaldo, who later fired narrowly off target, then nodded wide following Silva's cross before the hosts saw Enda Stevens whip over from Ogbene's inviting delivery.

The visitors, who had Pepe dismissed for a second bookable offence after catching Callum Robinson with his hand, managed to hold on for a point despite the hosts thinking they had found a late winner through Matt Doherty, Will Keane's foul on Patricio cutting short the celebrations.

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