Bukayo Saka refused to be drawn into more VAR controversy following England’s mundane Euro 2024 qualifying win over Malta.

The Arsenal winger has seen club manager Mikel Arteta handed a Football Association charge for his criticism of referees and VAR in the recent 1-0 Premier League defeat at Newcastle.

Arteta said it was “embarrassing” and a “disgrace” that Anthony Gordon’s goal was allowed to stand following a lengthy check.

England limped to a forgettable 2-0 victory over Malta at Wembley on Friday night but saw captain Harry Kane booked for simulation when there appeared to be clear contact from Malta goalkeeper Henry Bonello.

Saka was introduced at the interval and set up Kane to double England’s lead before his Arsenal team-mate Declan Rice had a goal ruled out when VAR intervened once again to rule that Kane was offside.

“Honestly, let’s not make comments about VAR tonight,” Saka replied when asked about the tight calls.

“I think let’s just focus on the win, the three points and be positive about it.”

England had taken an early lead through an Enrico Pepe own goal but then toiled, with no shot on target until well into the second-half and Kane shown a yellow card having been accused of going to ground to easily.

Asked if he had ever known Kane to dive, Saka added: “No, no. Even if I did I’m not going to say it now! He’s not a diver.

“I think it was a clear penalty from what I saw. I thought even VAR would check it and overturn it but I don’t know what they saw.”

While the win over the minnows of Malta may have been wholly unconvincing, it does mean Gareth Southgate’s side are all-but assured of being top seeds at Euro 2024.

“(That is) very important,” Saka said.

“Going into this camp Gareth made that really clear and was clear that it was important for us.

“So obviously the mindset going into these two games we made sure that we were on it and we made sure that we were ready to win, so we won today – obviously we don’t want to lose to North Macedonia, the mindset (is) to go there and win again. So that’s what we’re focused on.

“I think it’s a game where we didn’t really start the best, obviously we tried to pick up the pace but we have to give some credit to Malta as well, they played quite well.

“But in the end, we won 2-0, we got the three points so now we just have to move on.”

Gareth Southgate said England’s players fell short of the standards they “need to be at” against Malta but had no concerns about their attitude and aptitude ahead of next summer’s European Championship.

Nobody at Wembley expected anything other than a victory from the side ranked fourth in the world against the one nestled between Fiji and Bermuda in 171st.

But already-qualified England made hard work of a straightforward Group C qualifying assignment on Friday, with Enrico Pepe’s own goal giving the hosts a lead in a first half in which they failed to muster a single shot on target.

Harry Kane added another after a rare moment of quality interplay in the second half as Southgate’s side limped to a 2-0 victory that all but assures their place among the top seeds at next month’s Euro 2024 draw.

“We didn’t start the game well,” the England boss said. “I’ve been in football for 35 years and if you don’t start well, it’s really difficult to pick it up.

“We needed, of course, to show better quality with the ball but also we were a bit stretched without it and a little bit disjointed in our pressing at times.

“We were not the level we would want to be at. We were not the level that we need to be at.

“But, equally, this group of players have been exceptional and I’m not going to start getting into their ribs too much about a performance like tonight.

“We made a few changes, we didn’t hit the levels we would have liked to have but they managed to win the game.

“Not in the style we’d have liked for the supporters but, in the end, we’ve won comfortably, as we should.”

England now head onto Skopje to complete their Euro 2024 qualification campaign against North Macedonia as preparations continue for next summer.

Glory in Germany is the sole focus and Southgate dismissed the suggestion that his players taking their foot off the gas at home to Malta was a worrying sign.

“No, it’s not a worry because I think sometimes when players have so many matches they almost self-regulate,” Southgate said.

“I’ve been a player. You know that there’s a certain level you need to hit to beat Italy here and you know that you don’t have to hit that level to win today’s game.

“Although you would think that everybody would be at the same level all the time, that’s not the reality of football.

“I’ve played in those matches myself and there are nights where subconsciously you just do enough to win and I think that’s a little bit where we were tonight.”

England were below par for the most part on Friday, but Southgate still saw things he liked in their final home match of an unbeaten year.

“We scored a lovely second goal and I think there were some individual performances that were very positive,” he added.

“I thought Trent (Alexander-Arnold) was very, very good (in midfield). Him and Phil (Foden) in the first half were the two that looked like opening things up.

“I thought Marc Guehi had a very mature performance again. He’s really growing as an international footballer.

“It was lovely to get Cole Palmer on and give him a feel of things and I thought he looked really very comfortable in the environment.”

The result meant Malta ended qualification bottom of Group C with defeats in all eight of their games, but they showed signs of promise against the Euro 2020 runners-up.

Teddy Teuma went close to a famous opener just 28 seconds into the match at Wembley, where head coach Michele Marcolini praised his players’ efforts.

“I’m very proud of my players,” the Malta boss said. “I think they came here in Wembley without fear, always brave. We tried to be as offensive as possible.

“They reacted very, very well to falling behind. I think during these European qualifiers, we grew a lot and in these last matches against Ukraine and England played very well.

“For everything, to grow, we need time. I am very happy with our performance and the regret is we didn’t score. It would have been amazing.

“Apart from that, we wanted to make the fans proud and I think today the players put on the pitch the last drop of sweat I asked them to do yesterday.”

Republic of Ireland boss Stephen Kenny has told Evan Ferguson to play without pressure as he attempts to enhance his blossoming reputation on the international stage.

The 19-year-old striker has shaken off a back injury to make himself available for Saturday evening’s final Euro 2024 qualifier against the Netherlands in Amsterdam and the chance to add to his tally of three goals in eight senior appearances for his country.

Ferguson’s presence at the Johan Cruyff Arena, where he played in Brighton’s 2-0 Europa League win over Ajax last week, will excite the travelling support, although Kenny is keen not to place too much weight on his young shoulders.

He said: “It’s important not to expect too much. We’ve to be cognisant of his age. He’s made the breakthrough and played international football at 18.

“He’s just turned 19. He’s got an all-round game and a few goals already for Ireland.

“He was in this stadium last week, of course. He’s been very positive this week, very positive.

“He could easily have pulled out of the squad or opted to pull out having not been available for his club last week.

“He’s here, determined to well and deserves a lot of credit for that. We’re looking forward to it.

“There’ll be no pressure on him tomorrow. We want him to enjoy his football and show his quality.”

Ferguson missed September’s 2-1 home defeat by the Dutch – who would clinch their place at the finals along with leaders France with a win – due to a knee injury and was a frustrated bystander as Cody Gakpo’s penalty and a second goal from substitute Wout Weghorst overhauled Adam Idah’s opener.

That has been the story for much of a disappointing Group B campaign in which Ireland have beaten Gibraltar home and away, but have otherwise failed to pick up a single point.

Asked how much that had affected morale, Preston midfielder Alan Browne said: “Not as much as you might think.

“Given the circumstances, the opposition that we faced, it doesn’t hurt as much. When you try to go toe-to-toe with those teams and you’re not far off, you can take bit of credit, a bit of confidence from that.

“We try to stay as positive as we can. I’m not saying we’re happy to lose games – we’re obviously disappointed after every game we lose, even draws to a certain extent.

“We reflect on those games, we analyse them. When you see it back and see all the positives and the moments that have cost you, you kind of think there’s not an awful lot in it.

“Hopefully – it’s not going to be this campaign, but going into the next and the ones after it – if we can benefit from those performances and change those losses or draws into wins or into draws and keep accumulating as many point as we can, we can find ourselves in a better position.”

England continued their unbeaten run in European Championship qualification with a 2-0 win over Malta.

The Three Lions opened the scoring in the eighth minute when Enrico Pepe put through his own goal.

Many supporters inside Wembley Stadium would have imagined a few more goals but they were made to wait till the 75th minute before they saw another when Harry Kane netted from close range to seal victory.

Elsewhere in Group C, Italy boosted their chances of making Euro 2024 with a 5-2 win over North Macedonia.

Matteo Darmian opened the scoring for the Italians before Federico Chiesa gave them a healthy advantage thanks to his brace before the interval.

But, Italy were made to sweat in the second half when Jani Atanasov scored twice to reduce the deficit to just one but Giacomo Raspadori’s strike nine minutes from time and Stephan El Shaarawy’s late fifth wrapped up the win.

In Group E, Albania qualified despite being held to a 1-1 draw by Moldova.

Albania hit the front in the 25th minute when Sokol Cikalleshi slotted home a penalty and their celebrations were put on ice when Vladislav Baboglo equalised for the home side, but the scores stayed level to send Albania through.

Czech Republic held onto the second qualifying spot as they claimed a 1-1 draw with Poland in Warsaw.

Poland looked like they would leapfrog their opponents into second when Jakub Piotrowski gave them a 1-0 lead but West Ham’s Tomas Soucek proved to be the hero – four minutes after the break – when he fired the ball home from close range to edge them further to qualification and ended Poland’s hopes.

In Group H, Denmark qualified for the group stages following a 2-1 victory over Slovenia.

Joakim Maehle put Denmark in front but Erik Janza’s strike four minutes later sent the teams level into the break.

The all important winner was scored by Thomas Delaney, who poked home from close range to send the Danes through.

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan kept their hopes of qualifying alive thanks to a 3-1 home victory over San Marino.

The hosts were expected to gain all three points and were on their way when Islam Chesnokov claimed a brace, scoring either side of the break.

For just the second time in the qualifying phase, San Marino got on the scoresheet when Simone Franciosi nodded home from close range but Kazakhstan restored their two-goal advantage thanks to Abat Aimbetov’s late penalty.

Northern Ireland were thrashed 4-0 at the hands of Finland and slumped to their seventh defeat in qualifying.

England’s final home match of the year will be remembered for the pre-match tributes to Sir Bobby Charlton rather than the football that followed as Gareth Southgate’s side limped to a 2-0 win against Malta.

Friday’s European Championship qualifier at Wembley saw the senior men’s team play their first match since the incredible 1966 World Cup winner died at the age of 86 last month.

A fan mosaic, video montage and minute’s applause formed part of a fitting farewell to Charlton before the current crop made hard work of a simple assignment against the side ranked 171st in the world.

Southgate is dealing with a number of absentees right now and his side are already assured of qualification for Euro 2024, but this was hardly the entertaining display he hoped to put on for the 81,388 in attendance.

It could have been worse given Teddy Teuma went close to a famous Maltese goal 28 seconds into a Group C encounter, but the hosts went ahead as Enrico Pepe turned Phil Foden’s cross into his own net.

Harry Kane was furious to see the referee book him for diving rather than pointing to the penalty spot as a tepid clash continued, with the Euro 2020 runners-up failing to muster a first-half shot on target for the first time in six years.

Things did not improve much after half-time but a rare moment of attacking coherency and quick-thinking saw Kane strike home 15 minutes from time.

Substitute Declan Rice saw a third ruled out for a contentious offside call on a night that all but assured England’s place among the top seeds in December’s Euro 2024 draw.

Southgate named a surprisingly-strong side against the Mediterranean minnows on Friday, showing just five changes from last month’s win against Italy.

Conor Gallagher was among those brought in and breathing a sigh of relief after he was dispossessed and Teuma flashed just wide from the edge of the box inside the opening minute.

It was a close shave and England quickly went ahead thanks to a moment of Maltese misfortune, with Foden’s attempted cutback ricocheting off Pepe and beating goalkeeper Henry Bonello.

Southgate’s side would not give up that eighth-minute lead, nor build on it during a lifeless first-half display.

Malta were far more impressive than they had been in June’s reverse fixture and Paul Mbong fired over after Harry Maguire saw a lax pass cut out.

England musted just two attempts across a wretched first half that saw fans entertain themselves with Mexican waves and paper planes.

They should, though, have seen a penalty after Kane went down as he rounded goalkeeper Bonello.

The skipper turned around expecting a spot-kick, only for referee Luis Godinho to show him a yellow card for simulation. The on-field decision was allowed to stand by the VAR.

Kyle Walker and Bukayo Saka replaced Gallagher and Fikayo Tomori at the break.

Maguire’s deflected, looping header from a corner was easily gathered and Marcus Rashford continued to be frustrated by Malta’s backline as the qualifier limped on.

Rashford and Trent Alexander-Arnold collided and the former was replaced by debutant Cole Palmer, while Rice came on for Jordan Henderson. The veteran again received boos from some fans.

Alexander-Arnold, deployed in midfield, saw a shot saved by Bonello and whipped another attempt over as England pushed for a second, which came through the familiar boot of Kane after 75 minutes.

Malta were dogged in their defending but quick interplay involving Walker, Foden and Saka ended with Kane firing home from close range.

A minute later England appeared to have added gloss to the scoreline.

Rice collected the ball, burst forward and whipped a fizzing 20-yard strike past Bonello, only for the goal to be ruled out upon VAR review for Kane being offside.

Yannick Yankam thrashed the ball just wide and Alexander-Arnold nearly caught out Malta’s goalkeeper as the clock wound down.

Many fans made an early exit and groans met the announcement that there would be six minutes of added time as the night ended in a 2-0 England win, just like Southgate’s first match against the same opposition in October 2016.

Italy avoided another damaging defeat to North Macedonia to keep their automatic Euro 2024 hopes in their own hands after a 5-2 win in Rome which belied the nerves they suffered in the second half.

The hosts almost squandered a three-goal lead at the interval after Juventus forward Federico Chiesa scored twice to spare Arsenal midfielder Jorginho further agony when he failed to take his shot at redemption from the penalty spot.

It was Jorginho’s last-minute spot-kick miss two years ago in a 1-1 draw against Switzerland which ultimately consigned Italy to a World Cup qualifying play-off and led to North Macedonia’s shock win in Palermo.

But while the 31-year-old, making his first start since June, was fluffing his lines again with the score at 1-0, there was no such profligacy from Chiesa who scored a quick double late in the first half to pave the way for a seemingly comfortable victory.

However, half-time substitute Jani Antonov scored a double of his own to crank up the tension in the Stadio Olimpico before Giacomo Raspadori’s 81st-minute strike eased the nerves and another substitute, Stephan El Shaarawy, scored the fifth in added time.

The win put Luciano Spalletti’s side into second place in Group C and means they now only need a draw against Ukraine in Leverkusen to avoid another dreaded play-off.

It was one-way traffic from the off but Raspadori’s clip past goalkeeper Stole Dimitrievski in the 13th minute was ruled out for offside.

Three minutes later Chiesa, who caused Macedonia’s right side numerous problems all night, produced his first key intervention when he collected a return pass from Giacomo Bonaventura and saw his near-post shot denied.

However, from the resulting corner Raspadori’s cross was headed home by Matteo Darmian, his first international goal for eight years.

Chiesa was denied again by defender Jovan Manev before Nikola Serafimov’s handball from Federico Gatti’s close-range header led to Jorginho’s opportunity to banish the memories of two years ago but, having not scored for Italy in three years, he put a poor penalty too close to Dimitrievski.

But Chiesa came to his rescue, drilling home from the edge of the area after Macedonia failed to clear a throw-in from the right and then racing onto a Domenico Berardi through-ball to cut inside on his right foot and see his shot loop up off right-back Manev and over the goalkeeper.

The visitors were missing the injured Aleksandar Trajkovski, who had scored the winner in that play-off against Italy, but appeared to have found another hero in Atanasov.

Introduced for the second half, the 24-year-old scored with their first shot on target with his 52nd-minute header – his first international goal – leading to an unnecessary degree of tension for the hosts.

With 16 minutes remaining the pressure was ratcheted up when Atanasov’s drive from distance took a wicked deflection off Italy defender Franceso Acerbi but Raspadori and substitute El Shaarawy at least ended any fears of the necessity of a must-win final qualifier.

Michael O’Neill could point to individual and collective mistakes after Northern Ireland lost 4-0 to Finland in their penultimate Euro 2024 qualifier but the inexperience of his young squad played a major role in Helsinki.

Northern Ireland played well for much of the first half but fell behind to Joel Pohjanpalo’s penalty just before the break, and Daniel Hakans then doubled the lead three minutes into the second half before substitutes Teemu Pukki and Robin Lod added to the score late on.

Ross McCausland made his debut from the start only days after being drafted in as injury cover on Monday, and there was also a late debut for Michael Forbes with O’Neill trying to make up for the raft of missing players.

But it was a sadly familiar story as O’Neill’s men were unable to capitalise on early chances before being punished at the other end.

“We played very well for 40 minutes in the game I thought,” O’Neill said. “We had a plan to make ourselves difficult to beat and to contain Finland and we did it very well, I can’t remember them having any opportunities in that period…

“We created one or two half chances we could have done better with. Then the penalty, for all the work you do in the first 40 minutes you end up going in 1-0 down at half-time because of a penalty.”

Isaac Price clipped Nikolai Alho on the edge of the box before Pohjanpalo sent Conor Hazard the wrong way.

“Probably it’s a challenge he’s better off not attempting,” O’Neill said. “There’s not a lot of contact but there’s enough. The player wasn’t really in a position to shoot, we could possibly have been able to block the shot…

“I was really pleased with the first 40 minutes but obviously by 48 minutes you’re in a really difficult position.”

Hakans’ strike was in many ways the killer blow, coming so early in the second half. The Valerenga winger skipped through four challenges before exchanging passes with Glen Kamara, beating Hazard at his near post.

O’Neill was disappointed with his stand-in goalkeeper, but also accepted more experienced players might have stopped the run by fair means or foul much further from goal.

“It’s a shot that I would not expect to beat my goalkeeper at the near post,” O’Neill said.

“You have to recognise the danger and there’s points in the game where maybe you have to make a technical foul as they call it and we didn’t do that. I felt probably that was something that if I was to be critical of, we didn’t win enough of those types of challenges through the 90 minutes.”

When Finland then introduced Pukki off the bench, with the former Norwich striker scoring the third and creating the fourth, the game quickly went away from Northern Ireland.

“That has been the big difference, the attacking players some of the opposition have had and we saw that tonight with goals three and four,” O’Neill said.

“We’ve got a group of players where a lot of them are new to international football. This is their first campaign. They’re coming into games and the games are going away from them. As a manager I have to support them and back them.

“They have to learn on the job and they’re having to learn quickly.”

The good news is that this miserable qualifying campaign is almost over, with only Monday’s match at home to Denmark remaining.

“When you come out of a defeat you look at the game from a tactical point of view and a performance point of view but what’s most important as a staff and a coach and a group of players is that people don’t question your character or mentality,” O’Neill said.

“That’s what we have to show again on Monday night.”

France forward Kylian Mbappe is backing Paris St Germain midfielder Warren Zaire-Emery to become a future international star ahead of the visit of Gibraltar in Saturday’s Euro 2024 qualifier.

France are heavy favourites to make it seven wins from seven when they face Gibraltar at the Allianz Riviera and have all-but qualified for Euro 2024, while only conceding one goal so far in the qualifying phase.

Zaire-Emery, 17, is set to make his international debut after an impressive start to the Ligue 1 campaign, where he has scored two goals and claimed two assists in 11 appearances so far.

Mbappe, who made his debut in 2017 at the age of 18, has tipped his club team-mate to go far.

He told a press conference, as quoted on getfootballnewsfrance.com: “He is fascinating. He is already very mature and he plays with a lot of personality.

“He is a modern midfielder, who isn’t scared of going forward with the ball. What we have to do is accompany him. I don’t have any advice to give him because he is learning very quickly and on his own.

“Seventeen years old, it’s the same age as my brother (Ethan Mbappe), it’s mad. I’m not old, but it makes me feel a bit old! The guy arrives and does his homework.”

Mbappe was heavily linked with a move away from PSG in the summer but has enjoyed a bright start to the season with 15 goals to his name across all competitions so far.

The 24-year old insists he plays in different roles compared to club and country and demands the best of himself every game.

He continued: “I’m a player who’s very demanding of himself, so when I find that demand from my coaches then I’m very happy.

“I don’t need my manager to tell me I’m the best player in the world every day.

“(France head coach Didier) Deschamps is all about adapting to opponents, which means I’m a different player. That allows me to broaden my range. I can still improve and broaden my range.

“Here, the coach gives me total freedom on the left flank. (PSG boss) Luis Enrique gives me more structure. I’m adapting to all these schemes and with the two great coaches I have, it’s in my interest to listen to them.”

Soccer N Ireland

November 17, 2023

Michael O’Neill could point to individual and collective mistakes after Northern Ireland lost 4-0 to Finland in their penultimate Euro 2024 qualifier but the inexperience of his young squad played a major role in Helsinki.

Northern Ireland played well for much of the first half but fell behind to Joel Pohjanpalo’s penalty just before the break, and Daniel Hakans then doubled the lead three minutes into the second half before substitutes Teemu Pukki and Robin Lod added to the score late on.

Ross McCausland made his debut from the start only days after being drafted in as injury cover on Monday, and there was also a late debut for Michael Forbes with O’Neill trying to make up for the raft of missing players.

But it was a sadly familiar story as O’Neill’s men were unable to capitalise on early chances before being punished at the other end.

“We played very well for 40 minutes in the game I thought,” O’Neill said. “We had a plan to make ourselves difficult to beat and to contain Finland and we did it very well, I can’t remember them having any opportunities in that period…

“We created one or two half chances we could have done better with. Then the penalty, for all the work you do in the first 40 minutes you end up going in 1-0 down at half-time because of a penalty.”

Isaac Price clipped Nikolai Alho on the edge of the box before Pohjanpalo sent Conor Hazard the wrong way.

“Probably it’s a challenge he’s better off not attempting,” O’Neill said. “There’s not a lot of contact but there’s enough. The player wasn’t really in a position to shoot, we could possibly have been able to block the shot…

“I was really pleased with the first 40 minutes but obviously by 48 minutes you’re in a really difficult position.”

Hakans’ strike was in many ways the killer blow, coming so early in the second half. The Valerenga winger skipped through four challenges before exchanging passes with Glen Kamara, beating Hazard at his near post.

O’Neill was disappointed with his stand-in goalkeeper, but also accepted more experienced players might have stopped the run by fair means or foul much further from goal.

“It’s a shot that I would not expect to beat my goalkeeper at the near post,” O’Neill said.

“You have to recognise the danger and there’s points in the game where maybe you have to make a technical foul as they call it and we didn’t do that. I felt probably that was something that if I was to be critical of, we didn’t win enough of those types of challenges through the 90 minutes.”

When Finland then introduced Pukki off the bench, with the former Norwich striker scoring the third and creating the fourth, the game quickly went away from Northern Ireland.

“That has been the big difference, the attacking players some of the opposition have had and we saw that tonight with goals three and four,” O’Neill said.

“We’ve got a group of players where a lot of them are new to international football. This is their first campaign. They’re coming into games and the games are going away from them. As a manager I have to support them and back them.

“They have to learn on the job and they’re having to learn quickly.”

The good news is that this miserable qualifying campaign is almost over, with only Monday’s match at home to Denmark remaining.

“When you come out of a defeat you look at the game from a tactical point of view and a performance point of view but what’s most important as a staff and a coach and a group of players is that people don’t question your character or mentality,” O’Neill said.

“That’s what we have to show again on Monday night.”

Wembley celebrated the life of World Cup winner Sir Bobby Charlton ahead of England’s Euro 2024 qualifier against Malta.

Heartfelt tributes from across the footballing world poured in after Charlton’s death last month – with this the first England home game since.

The 1966 World Cup great, who scored 49 England goals in a fine career which also saw him win the European Cup with Manchester United, was remembered in a video montage introduced by Sir Geoff Hurst.

A crowd mosaic was held up during the national anthem before a moment of remembrance was held ahead of kick-off.

Both teams gathered around the centre circle as the number nine shirt so associated with Charlton was laid down before applause rang around the sold-out stadium.

Struggling Northern Ireland found no respite in the freezing temperatures of Helsinki as they suffered a seventh defeat of their Euro 2024 qualifying campaign in a 4-0 loss to Finland.

Michael O’Neill’s injury-ravaged side started well but crumbled after Joel Pohjanpalo’s penalty late in the first half, with second-half goals from Daniel Hakans, Teemu Pukki and Robin Lod piling on the pain.

A crippling list of absentees provides plenty of extenuating circumstances but Northern Ireland have won only three of their last 16 games, and have only scored in three of their nine qualifiers in this campaign – two of those being victories over minnows San Marino.

A young, inexperienced side played some encouraging football in the first half but lacked the cutting edge needed to earn any rewards, and were punished by their play-off bound hosts, who ended a three-game losing streak that cost them any chance of automatic qualification.

The last time Northern Ireland were in Helsinki in October 2015 they had just booked their ticket to Euro 2016, but this time they were without 12 injured players, with O’Neill having to reach ever deeper into the nation’s limited pool of players.

Ross McCausland only made his first Rangers start at the weekend, and was only called up from the Under-21s squad on Monday after an injury to Paul Smyth, but he started ahead of Conor McMenamin to become the 32nd player used by O’Neill in this campaign.

The decision looked a good one as the Linfield academy graduate linked up well with Isaac Price and Dion Charles in some crisp early moves.

When Matti Peltola stumbled on the right McCausland pounced, running down the right and cutting the ball in for Price, but the Standard Liege man shot straight at Lukas Hradecky.

Finland had to wait until the 14th minute for a sight of goal when a half-cleared corner fell for Pohjanpalo to hit on the volley but Conor Hazard, starting in place of the injured Bailey Peacock-Farrell in the city where he spent much of 2022 on loan at HJK, was down smartly to save.

George Saville was captaining the side on the night of his 50th cap but is yet to score in Northern Ireland colours, so it was sadly little surprise to see the Millwall midfielder fire wide after a neat move involving Price, Charles, and Trai Hume.

The game changed when Finland won a penalty six minutes before half-time. Daniel Ballard blocked a shot from Fredrik Jensen but the ball came to Nikolai Alho, who was clipped by Price as he tried to charge at goal.

Pohjanpalo, who started the night with only three goals in his last 20 Finland appearances, took responsibility and sent Hazard the wrong way.

Northern Ireland needed a response but instead conceded a second just three minutes into the second half.

It was a fine goal through Finnish eyes but O’Neill will wonder how Hakans was able to skip through four challenges before exchanging passes with Glen Kamara and then beating Hazard at his near post.

There was a tantalising glimpse of goal in the 69th minute when Price sent in a low cross for substitute Conor Washington, but Miro Tenho did just enough to keep the ball out of reach, and five minutes later substitute Pukki put the game beyond doubt.

The former Norwich man played a one-two with Robert Taylor, rode a challenge from Paddy McNair, and curled a shot beyond the reach of Hazard.

Pukki turned provider in the 88th minute, playing the ball through Ballard’s legs for Lod to poke home, condemning Northern Ireland to their worst result yet in a dismal campaign.

Alan Browne has challenged the Republic of Ireland to spoil the Netherlands’ Euro 2024 party as they look to end a disappointing campaign on a high.

The curtain will fall on Ireland’s dismal attempt to make next summer’s finals at the Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam, with automatic qualification long beyond them and only six points from home and away victories over Group B minnows Gibraltar to show for their efforts to date.

There will be little more than pride at stake for Stephen Kenny’s men on a night when victory would assure the Dutch of their ticket to Germany alongside leaders France, but Preston midfielder Browne is determined to make them sweat.

 

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Asked if the chance to put the champagne on ice provided added motivation, the 28-year-old said: “It’s not so much about spoiling their party, but we want to come here and win.

 

“The lads will be aware that we can play with a bit of freedom, it’s a bit of a free hit for us – which is obviously disappointing to say as a player, but that’s the way it is.

“We want to win the game and spoil their party to an extent, but it’s not a vendetta against them, it’s just as a professional you want to win every game that you play in, and especially at the highest level against one of the best teams in the world, you want to go out and beat them.

“It would mean an awful lot for us to get that result.”

The game seems likely to be the penultimate fixture of Kenny’s reign – his contract is due to expire after Tuesday night’s friendly against New Zealand in Dublin and the clamour for change after an overhaul which has significantly reduced the age profile of the squad, but yielded only six wins in 28 competitive outings, has grown in recent months.

However, Kenny, who will have striker Evan Ferguson at his disposal, but not the injured Chiedozie Ogbene, remained bullish as he surveyed the task ahead.

He said: “It’s a fantastic game against Holland. In the history of Irish football, all the great Irish teams of the past, some legendary players, it’s been elusive, the number of big away victories in that period.

“Obviously there have been victories in tournaments, but in terms of qualifiers, beating the major countries has proved elusive, even for the best teams.

 

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“For us it’s a massive challenge to play Holland on the night they can qualify in Amsterdam. It’s a huge, huge challenge and one we must embrace and be positive about.”

 

Browne for one has enhanced his reputation under Kenny’s watch, scoring important goals against Serbia, Belgium, Scotland and Norway, and he remains convinced that, while it may not be borne out by results, progress has been made.

He said: “I’ve seen a lot of stuff in the media, a lot of criticism, and rightly so in terms of results. It’s been a tough one.

“The group we got, we knew it was an uphill battle right from the start. The teams we got, we were really unfortunate. Any other team would be unfortunate with it as well.

“But that’s what you are up against, the best teams in the world, if you want to succeed you’ve got to beat them.

“In terms of performances, I think we have come a long way.

“Certainly since I first came in, in terms of team performances, we have definitely come a long way, we know that as players and staff. We have been in it together and just come up short in terms of results.”

The Republic of Ireland’s painful Euro 2024 campaign reaches its climax in Amsterdam on Saturday evening as they complete their Group B fixtures with a tough test against the Netherlands.

The game may represent a dead rubber for Stephen Kenny’s side, who have only wins over minnows Gibraltar home and away to show for their efforts to date, but the Dutch can clinch second place behind France, who have already qualified for the finals, with a victory.

Here, the PA news agency takes a look at some of the talking points surrounding the game.

The last waltz?

Stephen Kenny has divided opinion during his spell in charge of the Republic.

The former Dundalk boss has drastically overhauled the squad to introduce younger players while attempting to instil a more progressive brand of football.

However, his 28 competitive games to date have yielded just six wins – five of them against Azerbaijan, Luxembourg, Armenia and Gibraltar home and away – and only one of note, a 3-0 Nations League victory over Scotland in June last year.

Kenny’s current contract is due to end after Tuesday’s friendly clash with New Zealand and few commentators expect it to be extended.

Jimmy, Jimmy

 

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If Kenny has ushered in the new during his time at the helm, there could be a touch of nostalgia in his final competitive game.

Wrexham’s James McClean announced last month that he would retire from international football at the end of the campaign and was initially included in the squad for only the New Zealand game.

However, injuries prompted Kenny to hand the 34-year-old a seat on the plane to Amsterdam, where he could win a 103rd – and penultimate – senior international cap.

Seagull or Parrott?

Much of the hope for a brighter future has been placed in the hands of 19-year-old Brighton striker Evan Ferguson, whose goal in last month’s 4-0 victory over Gibraltar was his third in eight senior appearances for his country.

However, the teenager has been nursing a back injury in the run-up to the game and with Luton’s Chiedozie Ogbene out with an ankle problem, Tottenham’s Troy Parrott could find himself in contention.

Now 21 and playing his club football in the Netherlands on loan at Excelsior, Parrott has three Eredivisie goals to his name in eight outings so far this season and was used as a substitute in the June fixtures against Greece and Gibraltar following his return to the squad.

Dutch courage

The Republic’s hopes of making it to Germany next summer were all but extinguished by a 2-1 home defeat by the Netherlands in September, when Cody Gakpo’s penalty and substitute Wout Weghorst’s second-half strike cancelled out Adam Idah’s early spot-kick.

But those with longer memories may take inspiration from a famous World Cup qualifier victory over the Dutch in September 2001 when Jason McAteer secured a 1-0 win at Lansdowne Road over a side which included Edwin van der Sar, Jaap Stam, Marc Overmars, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Patrick Kluivert and substitutes Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Pierre van Hooijdonk despite Gary Kelly’s dismissal.

Koeman’s back ache

Netherlands boss Ronald Koeman has a rich array of talent from which to select, but his defensive options have been severely depleted by injuries.

Feyenoord’s Lutsharel Geetruida is the latest man to join a casualty list which already included Jeremie Frimpong, Matthijs de Ligt, Nathan Ake, Micky van de Ven and Sven Botman, and while PSV Eindhoven’s Jordan Teze has been drafted in to replace Frimpong, the manager has not called on further back-up.

Julian Nagelsmann feels Germany’s rebuild ahead of hosting Euro 2024 cannot just be done from the back.

Germany face Turkey in a friendly on Saturday night in Berlin at the Olympiastadion, where the final of next summer’s showpiece tournament will be played.

Former boss Hansi Flick was sacked after an early exit at the World Cup was followed by a five-game winless run which ended with a 4-1 defeat by Japan in Wolfsburg.

 

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Nagelsmann took over Die Mannschaft ahead of the tour to the United States during October, with his side going on to beat the hosts 3-1 and draw 2-2 with Mexico.

The former RB Leipzig and Bayern Munich head coach accepts tightening up in defence will be key to hopes of making an impact on home soil next summer –  but stressed it must not be his squad’s only focus.

“We want to have good (defensive) stability. There are moments when we want to give up less space to the opponents. We want to defend highly, but also give less space for balls behind our line,” Nagelsmann said.

“With a view to the Euros, a good defence is important, but we will not seek our salvation only on the defensive.

“We want to become even more dominant in the game to reduce the time we have to defend.”

Nagelsmann confirmed goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen would be returning to Barcelona as he deals with “acute back pain”, so will also not be available for next week’s trip to Austria.

 

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Manuel Neuer is working his way back to full fitness with Bayern following almost a year in recovery after breaking his leg while skiing.

Nagelsmann feels the 37-year-old should be allowed all the time he needs to get fully match fit and not face any extra pressure of a swift recall back to the national team.

“Anyone who listened to the reasons explaining the decision (not to call him up) can answer the question itself, why it has made sense not to nominate him (for the current squad),” Nagelsmann told a press conference.

“There are reasons that he has stayed at home and that is why a call-up now makes no sense.

“Manu has played a top role since his return and he should be allowed to continue.

“Afterwards, then at the Euros, the players who perform will play.”

Mats Hummels, a World Cup winner in 2014, should be involved after the Borussia Dortmund defender returned to training following his own back issue.

Germany captain Ilkay Gundogan is set to face his parent’s home nation for the first time.

The Gelsenkirchen-born Barcelona midfielder said: “It will be a very special game for me, no question about it.

“My grandparents, parents and other relatives still live in Turkey in Izmir, and of course I also have many friends there.

“I am really looking forward to it and I hope for a great football festival.”

 

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Turkey have already qualified for next summer’s finals, sitting top of Group D and will head to Wales next week for their last fixture.

New head coach Vincenzo Montella will be without captain Hakan Calhanoglu, who is recovering from a respiratory infection while his wife is also about to give birth to their child.

Fenerbahce winger Cengiz Under is another who did not travel to Germany as he continues to manage various fitness issues.

Scotland drew 2-2 with Georgia in Tbilisi in the penultimate match of their successful European Championship qualifying campaign.

Scott McTominay and substitute Lawrence Shankland both hit equalisers after Napoli attacker Khvicha Kvaratskhelia struck twice for the hosts.

Here are five things we learned from the encounter in the Boris Paichadze Stadium ahead of Scotland’s final Group A game against Norway on Sunday.

Substitutes are key again

Kenny McLean scored a late winner off the bench in Oslo in June and the substitute made a more sustained if less spectacular impact on Thursday night. The Norwich midfielder set up McTominay to level and generally helped improve Scotland’s possession after a slack first half with fellow half-time replacement Lewis Ferguson also contributing. Shankland then headed home in stoppage time from fellow sub Stuart Armstrong’s cross with Anthony Ralston also showing up well in a brief cameo. Manager Steve Clarke has not always been quick to make changes but it appears that the bench is becoming more and more important to Scotland in the five-subs era.

Shankland stakes his claim

The Hearts striker dropped out of the squad last month but earned a late call-up on the back of five goals in his last five club games when Che Adams pulled out. The 28-year-old seized his chance when he rose well to head home. “We needed a goal and you know Lawrence has always got a chance of getting a goal,” said Clarke as he explained why he had used him. Scotland will undoubtedly need a goal at some stage in Germany next summer and an in-form Shankland is arguably the most natural goalscorer Scotland have.

Pot two still in reach

Spain’s late goal in Seville last month wiped out Scotland’s head-to-head advantage and any realistic chance of Clarke’s side topping the group. Scotland would need to beat Norway on Sunday while Georgia win in Spain for that to happen. There is a better chance of Scotland finishing as the best runners-up and sealing a place in pot two for next month’s draw. That looks likely to be Austria, assuming Belgium beat Azerbaijan, but a two-goal win or a high-scoring one-goal victory could put the Scots among the second seeds. However, that could theoretically hand Scotland a tougher draw given the likes of Netherlands, Denmark, Italy or Ukraine are headed for pot three.

Zander Clark shows his mettle

The Hearts goalkeeper was beaten at his near post for Kvaratskhelia’s opener but there were bigger factors in the lead-up to the goal which left the former St Johnstone man exposed on his competitive debut. Clark went on to make three assured saves including one in the dying seconds.

Back four experiment has mixed success

With Kieran Tierney, Andy Robertson and Aaron Hickey joining long-term absentee Grant Hanley on the sidelines in recent weeks, Clarke went with a back four featuring Nathan Patterson, Ryan Porteous, Scott McKenna and Greg Taylor. Scotland seemed more open as a result, especially in the first half, although they dominated the final half hour. Tierney’s return to fitness looks key to Scotland’s Euro 2024 prospects given his influence in the back three.

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