European Championship Qualifying roundup: France edge past Greece, Saka stars for England

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European Championship Qualifying roundup: France edge past Greece, Saka stars for England

France weren't at their best against Greece but still clinched the win
France weren't at their best against Greece but still clinched the winAFP
France had to garner all their vigour to beat a gritty ten-man Greece side 1-0 at the Stade de France, a Bukayo Saka hat-trick against North Macedonia helped England continue their phenomenal record in major tournament qualification games under Gareth Southgate, a stunning late brace from Valentin Mihăilă earned Romania a 2-2 draw against Switzerland, while Slovenia were denied the opportunity to move into the top-two of Group H after a 1-1 draw with Denmark.

France 1 Greece 0

Mbappe's penalty proved to be the difference
Mbappe's penalty proved to be the differenceAFP

As the only other Group B side with a perfect unbeaten record, Gus Poyet’s Greece possessed something more than what meets the eye, as they cautiously restricted the hosts with tenacious defending.

Just as brightly as Les Bleus had begun, they gradually dimmed down, with the visitors skillfully cutting off passing lanes to frustrate the home crowd. However, Kylian Mbappé remained an ever-present threat with his pace, but failed to make an impact.

Didier Deschamps was dissatisfied despite the 3-0 win over minnows Gibraltar in the last round, and there was no indication that he would be any happier with what he saw from his men in blue, especially in terms of the final product. In contrast, Greece went into the break perhaps content, after a maiden goalless first-half in their last six ECQ games, thanks largely to Odysseas Vlachodimos’ fantastic point-blank save to deny Jules Koundé towards the end.

Whether that would favour them or not, remained to be seen, as the Piratiko secured victories in each of their last five ECQ matches which failed to produce an opening half stalemate. And it proved to be a bad break, after some horrific defending by Konstantinos Mavropanos gifted the hosts a penalty right after the restart, as he Kung-fu knocked the wits out of Antoine Griezmann in the D-box and remarkably avoided being sent off.

Drama then unfolded, with Mbappé converting the spot-kick at the second time of asking by burying the ball into the top corner, after Vlachodimos stepped off his goal line to save the Frenchman’s initial attempt.

While Mavropanos astonishingly evaded the red earlier, yet another cynical challenge to deny Randal Kolo Muani a one-on-one chance meant referee Mateu Lahoz didn’t hesitate to send the Stuttgart defender to an early shower. That sending off ultimately subdued any Greek momentum, with the visitors succumbing to a third defeat in five H2Hs.

France are now yet to concede a goal in Euro 2024 qualifying, having avenged their 1-0 defeat to Greece in Euro 2004 - their last competitive meeting - with a replica scoreline.

Flashscore Man of the Match: Kylian Mbappé (France)

See all the match stats here

 

England 7 North Macedonia 0

Saka scored his first career hat-trick
Saka scored his first career hat-trickAFP

If those fans attending England’s first game at Old Trafford since 2007 were after some early entertainment, then they would be sorely mistaken. It took almost until the half-hour mark for England to really find their groove, but when they did, their quality shone through. A sweeping Three Lions move culminated with Luke Shaw getting to the byline and cutting the ball back for the effervescent Harry Kane, who made no mistake in firing England ahead.

Southgate’s side were purring from then on and swiftly doubled their advantage when Bukayo Saka was afforded too much space in the area, allowing the Arsenal man to rifle an effort high into the roof of the net. England were far from done and netted a third before HT as Marcus Rashford became the first Manchester United player to score for the Three Lions at Old Trafford since David Beckham against Sweden in November 2001.

England’s dominance didn’t slow down after the break, adding a fourth inside two minutes of the restart. It came in fine fashion too, with Trent Alexander-Arnold the architect as his measured ball found Saka in behind, who took one touch to pluck the ball out the sky and a second to thunder it into the top corner. Although the game was already wrapped up, Saka was keen to secure a first international hat-trick and it didn’t take him long to do just that when Kane’s inch-perfect ball freed the Arsenal man to add his third of the night.

Despite making a raft of changes, England were showing no signs of letting up and added a sixth of the night in simple fashion when North Macedonia failed to clear Jack Grealish’s delivery and Kalvin Phillips had the simplest task of tapping home his first England goal. As if the Three Lions needed any encouragement, Egzon Bejtulai gave them just that when he wrestled John Stones to the ground in the area. Kane stepped up from the spot and duly converted England’s seventh to make the scoreline that little bit more humiliating for North Macedonia.

Losing on English soil isn’t a feeling North Macedonia are all that accustomed to, with this interestingly their first away loss against England after two H2H draws prior. As for Southgate’s side, it’s been the perfect start to their qualification campaign, with four wins from four games putting them in pole position to top Group C.

Flashscore Man of the Match: Bukayo Saka (England)

See all the match stats here

 

Switzerland 2 Romania 2

Mihaila was the hero for Romania
Mihaila was the hero for RomaniaAFP

The Swiss have been the dominant force in Group I, which was reflected in the early stages as they hosted Romania. Inside a quarter-hour, Andrei Burcă made a superb block to deny Denis Zakaria after the midfielder had worked some space on the edge of the box, Ruben Vargas was halted by Horațiu Moldovan after ghosting behind the Tricolorii defence and Granit Xhaka’s ball came agonisingly close to being converted by Zeki Amdouni.

The relentless pressure eventually told in the 28th minute, as Vargas delivered a ball that took a deflection off Cristian Manea and sat up perfectly for a simple Amdouni finish. Remo Freuler seemed certain to add a second soon after but was denied by another last-ditch intervention from Burcă, although there was no stopping Amdouni when he raced behind to reach an exquisite ball from Xherdan Shaqiri, as the striker coolly slid home his seventh goal in his last four games for club and country.

Switzerland remained in the ascendancy after the break with Xhaka picking out Shaqiri, although the winger’s dinked attempt drifted harmlessly wide.

Romania weren’t giving up as they made forays forward of their own, even if their desperation was epitomised by Mihăilă’s unsuccessful attempt at a dive in the Swiss box. The hosts also took their foot off the gas slightly and thought they had a penalty following Cristian Manea’s challenge on Renato Steffen, but the penalty decision was overturned following a VAR check.

An outstanding Olimpiu Moruțan cross and an equally impressive finish from Valentin Mihăilă’ gave Romania hope in the 90th minute, and the pair linked up again just two minutes later to earn the Tricolorii a point out of nowhere, as they stay unbeaten and edge a point ahead of Israel to stay second.

 Switzerland will be furious to have let their lead slip from such a comfortable position, especially as Uran Bislimi came within a crossbar’s width of re-establishing their lead, although they are still top of ECQ Group I and unbeaten.

Flashscore Man of the Match: Valentin Mihăilă (Romania)

See all the match stats here

 

Slovenia 1 Denmark 1 

Højlund celebrates equalising
Højlund celebrates equalisingAFP

Both nations were part of a quartet locked on six points each after three rounds of ECQ fixtures, so this presented the chance for one to break away in hopes of reaching next year’s finals. Slovenia’s eight-game unbeaten streak was ended by Finland on Friday night, though they had the opportunity to get back on track against an opponent that has only won one of their last eight away Euro qualifiers and were on their way to doing so after 25 minutes.

A corner routine straight from the training ground outfoxed the Danes spectacularly, beginning with a short one-two between Adam Gnezda Čerin and Petar Stojanović, and ending with Kasper Schmeichel furious at his defence as the ball was tucked in from six yards by Andraž Šporar.

However, the Red and White weren’t down and out as they had an ace up their sleeve in the form of Rasmus Højlund. The in-demand Atalanta striker had five goals to his name in five prior international appearances, and would increase that record - and perhaps his prospective transfer fee later this summer - three minutes before HT.

Pierre-Emile Højbjerg broke down the left wing before crossing into Højlund, who poked in from close range to equalise and wipe out debutant Slovenian goalkeeper Matevž Vidovšek’s clean sheet.

Back on level terms, the visitors were spurred on to complete the turnaround. Their 100 percent winning H2H record was on the line, and were a post’s-width away from taking hold of proceedings midway through the second half. Jaka Bijol’s failed clearance fell to Christian Eriksen, whose weak shot trickled across goal and onto the post. Then on the follow up, Jens Stryger Larsen had the goal at his mercy, but was denied by Bijol making amends with a crucial block.

Despite their opponent’s control, the home side proved they could be just as dangerous on the counterattack, hitting the woodwork with an attempt of their own. Poor defending allowed Jan Mlakar the freedom of the penalty area, but with Schmeichel in his sights, he could only hit the top of the crossbar.

That miss would prove to be the story of the second half as neither could muster a winner. As a result, both fail to keep pace with joint-group leaders Finland and Kazakhstan, now trailing by two points in the race to reach the finals in Germany.

Flashscore Man of the Match: Pierre-Emile Højbjerg (Denmark)

See all the match stats here

 

Other qualifying results:

Belarus 2 Kosovo 1

Ireland 3 Gibraltar 0

Israel 2 Andorra 1

Northern Ireland 0 Kazakhstan 1 

Turkey 2 Wales 0

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