World Cup Qualifiers - Europe

World Cup Qualifiers - Europe (163)

After the 2018 World Cup final, when highlights of France's thrilling 4-2 win were played back at Luzhniki Stadium, one man in particular was enraptured.

Antoine Griezmann stood on the pitch, ignoring the celebrations that surrounded him, his gaze fixed upwards at the big screen beneath the storm-laden sky.

His hands to his mouth, eyes watering, smile beaming, the face of the man bore an expression of boyish disbelief: I was just man of the match in the World Cup final. And we won.

It's unlikely anything in Griezmann's career will ever top that victory over Croatia in the Russian capital. Win or lose, Sunday's Nations League final against Spain almost certainly won't. Still, it will be another special occasion for the Atletico Madrid forward, who is set to win his 100th cap against the national team of his adoptive country.

It also offers a chance to reflect on Griezmann's international career, which began only seven years ago. In the Didier Deschamps era, there has been no more important player.

 

Didier's favourite

Reaching a century of international games is commendable for any player – only eight men have ever achieved it for France before. What makes Griezmann unique is that all of his caps have come under the same coach.

It was Deschamps who handed Griezmann his debut on March 5, 2014 against the Netherlands, starting the forward wide on the left of a front three. Griezmann has since been used across the forward line in changing systems, but his presence in Deschamps' set-up has been constant: he has only missed four France games since his first appearance and has played in 56 matches in a row for Les Bleus, the longest such streak in their history.

 

Under Deschamps, only Olivier Giroud (101) has played more often than Griezmann, while only goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris has started more games (96 compared with Griezmann's 84) or played more minutes (8,700 to Griezmann's 7,300).

When he scored his second in the 2-0 World Cup qualifying win over Finland in September, Griezmann moved level with Michel Platini on 41 international goals. Only Giroud (46) and Thierry Henry (51) have managed more in the national team's history. Given his rate of just over five international goals per year, the outright record looks well within Griezmann's reach, even if he insists it is not an "obsession" to get it.

Another record beckons in 2022: should France reach the semi-finals in Qatar, Griezmann could surpass Henry and Fabien Barthez (both on 17) for the most appearances for Les Bleus at World Cup finals.

 

Griezi does it on the biggest stage

In the 2018 World Cup final, Griezmann won and took the free-kick from which Mario Mandzukic scored the opening own goal, and he converted the penalty that restored France's lead when Croatia were beginning to take control.

It was a decisive display in the biggest match of the Deschamps era, but the fact Griezmann stepped up for his country when it mattered should not have come as a shock.

In the knockouts in Russia, Griezmann scored in the 4-3 win over Argentina, got a goal and an assist in the quarter-final with Uruguay and crossed for Samuel Umtiti's headed winner against Belgium in the last four. He won the bronze ball as the third-best player at the tournament and the silver boot for finishing as second in the goal standings, two behind England's Harry Kane on six.

 

Two years earlier, he scored twice against the Republic of Ireland, got a goal and two assists against Iceland and two more strikes against Germany in the knockouts of Euro 2016 before France fell at the final hurdle on home soil against Portugal. In both 2016 and 2018, he came third in the Ballon d'Or standings.

Griezmann won the golden boot and was named player of the tournament at Euro 2016. Indeed, in the history of the European Championship finals, only Cristiano Ronaldo (20) and Michel Platini (10) have been directly involved in more goals than the 30-year-old (nine).

 

Antoine-derful

Griezmann scored 22 goals in 74 LaLiga games for Barcelona as he struggled to find his place in the system alongside Lionel Messi under three different coaches. It was a fairly poor return for €120million. Yet for France, regardless of tactics and personnel, he has delivered consistently when it matters.

Since his debut, Griezmann has nine goals and four assists in 16 World Cup qualifying games. No player has managed more, or made more appearances. He also leads the way for chances created (33, 14 more than anyone else), and shots (46, seven more than nearest rival Paul Pogba).

In Euros qualifying, only Giroud matches Griezmann for games (10) and beats him for goals (six), while the Atleti man is again top for assists (seven). In fact, he has created 42 goalscoring chances in those games, which is 28 more than anyone else for France during his international career.

At World Cup finals, no France player has played more matches (12), scored more goals (four) or provided more assists (two) than Griezmann in the Deschamps era. His 17 chances created are, again, the most in that time.

And, at the European Championships... well, you can guess where we're going here. His seven goals and two assists in 11 games is a better return than any other France player since his debut. If you add in four goals and an assist in 11 Nations League matches – again, nobody for France has played as many – then Griezmann stands on 43 direct goal involvements in competitive internationals, which is 15 more than any other player since he made his bow on the senior stage.

 

In Spain, Griezmann went from underrated Real Sociedad talent to Atletico Madrid superstar to Barcelona let-down. For France, he has been Monsieur Dependable for more than seven years.

If he marks his 100th cap with a decisive turn in a Nations League final victory, nobody – among the French, at least – would be surprised.

Jack Grealish was delighted to finally get off the mark in an England shirt after adding the final goal in Saturday's 5-0 win at Andorra.

A reshuffled England side were comfortable throughout as they closed on World Cup qualification, recording their sixth win in seven matches in this campaign.

The Three Lions were two up by half-time through Ben Chilwell and Bukayo Saka, the latter assisted by the outstanding Phil Foden. It was the first time two England players aged 21 or under had combined for a World Cup qualifying goal since Steven Gerrard's assist for Michael Owen against Germany in 2001.

Tammy Abraham got in on the act after half-time, before Grealish made a significant impact from the bench.

In 17 minutes, the £100million man won a penalty, which James Ward-Prowse saw saved before tucking away the rebound, and then hit the net following Sam Johnstone's throw from an Andorra set-piece.

The last substitute to win a penalty and score a goal in a European World Cup qualifier while playing 17 minutes or fewer had been Nicklas Bendtner in a six-minute cameo for Denmark against the Republic of Ireland in November 2017.

Grealish's goal came in his 16th appearance for his country, and the Manchester City winger acknowledged the drought had been on his mind. 

"It has been a long time coming, and it's about time that I scored because everyone has been saying it to me," Grealish told BBC 5 live.

 

"I think that is 16 games now. It was coming, and I'm just delighted that I've got off the mark.

"I want to be starting games, to be starting the biggest of games and keep playing for England. Luckily over the past few months and during the Euros I've had the chance to do that.

"In the back of my mind there has been that feeling that I've just wanted to score, just to get off the mark. Obviously I've done that tonight, I'm delighted, and it's a night I won't forget."

For Abraham, meanwhile, it was his first England goal for almost two years.

The Roma striker became the first England player to score while affiliated to an Italian team since David Platt, then with Sampdoria, netted against Sweden in 1995.

"I need to keep performing for my club and I hope I'll be in more camps going forward leading to the World Cup," said Abraham.

"It is never straightforward against Andorra. It was hard to break them down, but you could see the quality in the team as we had to find ways to score, and we did.

"I knew the opportunity would come. Jadon told me at half-time that sometimes he would cut back on his right and try and find me in the middle of the goal, so I should be ready.

"I was ready that time and got a good toe onto the ball. I was in the right place at the right time and I took my chance."

Bukayo Saka and Tammy Abraham were on target as England cruised to a comfortable 5-0 win over Andorra in World Cup qualifying Group I on Saturday.

Gareth Southgate named a largely second-string outfit at the Estadi Nacional but they had no problem dispatching a side ranked 153 places beneath them, Ben Chilwell setting them on their way in the 17th minute with his first international goal. 

Bukayo Saka added a second before half-time, while Tammy Abraham, James Ward-Prowse and Jack Grealish sealed the most routine of wins in the second period. 

A sixth win in seven group games means England move onto 19 points at the summit, while Andorra remain in fifth on three points. 

Netherlands head coach Louis van Gaal says his side does not need to play to entertain after they ground out a 1-0 World Cup qualifying win over Latvia in Riga on Friday.

Davy Klaassen netted a 19th-minute winner for the Dutch to move clear in Group G, although they needed an injury-time save from goalkeeper Justin Bijlow to preserve their lead.

Klaassen's goal came when he volleyed home a Memphis Depay corner with Van Gaal's side putting in an uninspiring performance, where they bossed 75 per cent possession and had the bulk of the chances with 19-10 shots and 4-1 shots on target.

Van Gaal would not be drawn on his side's ability to entertain, insisting World Cup qualification is the only goal after the Dutch missed out in 2018.

"We don't have to entertain the public here," van Gaal told NOS after the game. "We have to make it to the World Cup, that's the goal.

"These are very difficult matches. Every long ball was a fight with that striker [Roberts Uldrikis] of theirs."

The Netherlands sit clear atop Group G with 16 points, two points ahead of Norway, who drew with third-placed Turkey 1-1 on Friday.

Van Gaal conceded the Dutch invited Latvia's pressure, with Bijlow denying Igors Tarasovs late, by not adding to their one-goal advantage and felt they should have scored more.

"It has become 0-1, but it could also have been 0-4, 1-6 or 2-1," he said. "We did that ourselves. Frenkie de Jong's pass was too soft and Denzel Dumfries did not come to the ball. Everything went wrong there."

He added: "We had 15 chances and they had four. We had 75 per cent of the ball. That is not surprising, because I had already expected this.

"You can say it’s not that great, but we won 1-0, and Turkey-Norway made it 1-1. We are one step closer to the World Cup."

Hansi Flick insists Germany deserved maximum points after coming from behind to beat Romania in World Cup qualifying Group J on Friday.

Thomas Muller's late strike earned a 2-1 victory for Flick's side in Hamburg, after Serge Gnabry cancelled out Ianis Hagi's first-half effort.

As a result, Die Mannschaft moved six points clear at the top of Group J with three matches remaining, and could seal their qualification by beating North Macedonia on Monday.

They also made it four wins from four under Flick, whose perfect start since replacing Joachim Low after Euro 2020 continues.

The former Bayern Munich boss was disappointed by the manner in which Germany conceded the opening goal – the first of his tenure – having seen the initial awarding of a penalty overturned by referee Cuneyt Cakir just 52 seconds earlier.

Nevertheless, he was pleased with the response of his players, while also paying tribute to the home support at the Volksparkstadion.

"Conceding goals always annoys me," Flick told RTL.

"We were about to have a penalty, and then we conceded. It wasn't easy for us to put up with that. 

"We were man to man at the back. A number six simply has to stay there to cover, but we also have to say it was a very good goal

"But the team gave everything and the fans pushed us. In the end, we deserved to win against a team that defended very deep."

Match-winner Muller added: "I thought we played a very committed game and tried a lot. Going into the break 1-0 behind was not a good feeling. 

"We have to compliment the fans. When we scored the second, they literally exploded. We could feel the connection on the pitch.

"Even when we fell behind, we knew that not everything we did before was bad. It's nice when you still get a result afterwards."

Thomas Muller scored the winner as Germany came from behind to defeat Romania 2-1 in Hamburg and move six points clear at the top of World Cup qualifying Group J.

The hosts fell behind to Ianis Hagi's wonderful individual effort after just nine minutes at the Volksparkstadion.

But Serge Gnabry's fifth goal of the qualifying campaign levelled matters, with Germany leaving it late to complete the turnaround.

Hansi Flick's side did so nine minutes from time, substitute Muller marking his 107th international cap by turning home a corner at the far post.

The Netherlands took control of World Cup qualifying Group G with a 1-0 victory over Latvia on Friday.

Davy Klaassen scored the only goal of the game in the first half as Oranje edged an uninspiring contest in Riga.

After scoring 10 goals in their previous two matches against Montenegro and Turkey, Louis van Gaal's men were far more laboured against a side whose only World Cup qualifying wins since the end of 2013 have come against Andorra and Gibraltar.

Klaassen's opening goal was a well-taken volley on the turn from Memphis Depay's corner, as the Netherlands started in positive fashion.

Yet Klaassen was required to make a double block against Andrejs Ciganiks and Roberts Uldrikis at the other end barely a minute later following a mistake near the halfway line by captain Virgil van Dijk.

Latvia continued to offer a threat on the break, but the visitors should have made their position more comfortable six minutes after half-time, Cody Gakpo heading Daley Blind's cross over the bar when Klaassen was perhaps better placed to meet it.

The Netherlands continued to control around 75 per cent of the possession without really threatening Roberts Ozols in the Latvia goal, at least until substitute Ryan Gravenberch was thwarted by the keeper's legs from inside the penalty area.

Latvia almost produced a late shock in injury time, Igors Tarasovs drawing a one-handed save from Justin Bijlow after the Netherlands failed to clear a corner.

What does it mean? Netherlands two points clear in Group G

With Turkey and Norway playing out a draw in Istanbul, the Netherlands were able to move two points clear at the top of the group.

Given their next game is at home to Gibraltar, who have lost all seven of their qualifiers, Van Gaal's side have a good chance to put themselves in a strong position ahead of the final two rounds of matches.

Klaassen holds the key

There were not many especially bright performances but Klaassen deserves credit for the decisive moments: his volley on the spin from 12 yards out was well controlled, and his endeavour in his own box moments later made sure there was to be no quick equaliser.

He was the only Netherlands player to manage more than a single shot on target, too – although he only had two of those.

Complacency almost proves costly

While the final half-hour was firmly under their control, the Netherlands allowed Latvia far too many opportunities to attack in the first half as they failed to build on their lead.

One particularly slack piece of play from Van Dijk in the opponents' half presented them with their best chance of the contest.

What's next?

The Netherlands host Gibraltar on Monday, when Latvia are at home to Turkey.

The Andorra Football Federation (FAF) expects Saturday's World Cup qualifier with England to go ahead as planned, despite a fire breaking out at their Estadi Nacional ground on the eve of the game.

The fire, which started a few hours after Gareth Southgate's squad had been training at the 3,300-capacity stadium, caused thick black smoke and was dealt with by fire crews.

A television gantry went up in flames while a VAR monitor and a dugout appeared to be damaged. Some of the playing surface towards the touchline was also burned.

However, the FAF has moved to allay fears that the fixture is at risk of being postponed or moved to a new venue. 

"No personal harm has been reported, only material damage. The schedule will continue as planned and the match will go ahead," a statement read on Friday.

UEFA is expected to have the final say on whether the game will take place at Estadi Nacional.

England lead the way at the top of Group I ahead of this weekend's contest, sitting four points clear of second-place Albania and a further point in front of Poland.

A fire broke out at Andorra's Estadi Nacional ground the day before the World Cup qualifying match against England.

Gareth Southgate's squad had been training at the 3,300-capacity stadium on Friday around three hours before the blaze started.

The fire, which caused thick black smoke, appeared to take place in the broadcast gantry in between the two dugouts.

After fire crews dealt with the incident, a VAR monitor and one dugout looked to be damaged, while there was also a burnt area of the playing surface towards the touchline.

Initial reports have suggested the fixture is not in doubt, but UEFA must decide if it can go ahead at the original venue.

There must be a back-up venue in place for all qualifying matches, per UEFA rules.

Gareth Southgate has rejected the suggestion that "most" of his England squad are not fully vaccinated against coronavirus and reiterated his support for a vaccine programme.

The subject of wildly varying vaccination rates at Premier League clubs recently prompted a passionate outburst from Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp.

Southgate supports the vaccination programme and Tammy Abraham this week became the first England player to reveal he had been jabbed, but others have been reluctant to speak about the matter publicly.

Asked about most players in the squad and Premier League in general not being fully vaccinated ahead of England's World Cup qualifier in Andorra, Southgate replied: "I'm not sure that's totally accurate, in terms of 'most', but I think everybody knows where I stand on the subject.

"To move out of a pandemic, the only way is a vaccination programme, I think that was essential.

"There is then the complication that there are lots of individual circumstances around that and I understand that some people would be anxious, perhaps.

"When you are in the camp of mine, over 50, there is less to consider really. The odds are more straightforward, it's a much more straightforward decision and I'm a believer that it's the right thing to do.

"I can kind of understand there are other topics we've talked about where everybody would be aligned and we would all have a very clear view as a team.

"With this, it's a little bit more nuanced, lots of people have had the virus, so maybe they feel the antibodies are high in their own bodies.

"Lots of people might have individual medical conditions, some people in the country might have religious reasons. It's a complicated area, my belief is the route out of the pandemic is a vaccination programme.

"I'm yet to hear anybody offer an alternative and there is not a lot more we can say than that."

Southgate says the England team doctor takes the lead when it comes to communicating with the players on the subject.

He added: "Our doctor over the last year and a half has always spoken to the players about the current situation.

"He has spoken in terms of infection in the country to explain what measures will be needed within the camp for us because those over the 18 months have changed.

"So whether masks are needed indoors for us, the level of testing and whatever that is going to be.

"He's always explaining the benefits of the vaccination. But, of course, we have had to deal with many different topics.

"We also have to prepare a team to play football and sometimes there wouldn't be enough hours to discuss all the things that everybody seems to want us to discuss and prepare a team to play a football match.

"We cannot impact the weather in the next two or three days, we could not jab everyone here in two or three days.

"There is a balance to strike. First and foremost, we are here to win football matches."

England are four points clear of Albania at the top of Group I ahead of Saturday's match with Andorra, who are fifth in the standings.

What is expected to be a more testing match with Hungary follows at Wembley on Tuesday.

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.