Ireland and Poland send echoes around Europe

“It’s a scoreline that will echo around Europe,” Clive Tyldesley told viewers excitedly as England neared the final whistle at Wembley on Friday night. 

Ireland and Poland send echoes around Europe

With due respect to the Scots, who might well have embarrassed their hosts had they been able to shoot straight, England beating Scotland nowadays barely registers across the rest of the continent.

Any echo effect was more in the nature of a dull thud.

Speaking objectively, there were two big results over the weekend, and the first was in Vienna. People have been inclined to dismiss Austria because of their poor showing earlier this year and in the European finals. But playing at home they are not easy meat in competitive matches.

Fortress Happel is how the Austrian media like to think of their home stadium, so this result compares to their 2-1 defeat by Germany four years ago. Ten games unbeaten since then, including eight wins, gave them a false expectation of victory.

This is a classic World Cup group, evenly-balanced with no outstanding side, but only one minnow. So for Ireland to be up on 10 points – the same tally as Poland. France and Croatia (and England) - is a genuine achievement.

The second big result was in Bucharest. Romania are not one of the top sides, but they made the European finals and they did so thanks to an obstinate defence that produced an extraordinary run of clean sheets – nine in 10 matches - in 2014-15.

The Dutch were the last side to put three goals past Romania, in the qualifiers for the last World Cup, so 3-0 was a good result for Poland and Robert Lewandowski. He now has 19 goals in his last 19 internationals and is scoring more than a goal a game for Bayern Munich. With other teams in the group slipping up against one another, Poland are in a strong position now, after a slightly uncertain start to their campaign. Portugal, by contrast, are still uncertain.

The European champions did eventually beat Latvia 4-1 on Sunday, but they had a scare when Latvia equalised midway through the second half. After Cristiano Ronaldo scored with one penalty and then missed with another they needed two goals in the final 10 minutes to make the scoreline look more comfortable than it was.

As in the past, Portugal had 75% of the possession and 25 shots, but it was a mixed bag performance against one of the weakest sides. Latvia lost 2-0 at home to the Faroe Islands last month, the Faroes having previously lost by six at home to the Portuguese.

The Baltic countries are threatening to become the punchbags of this tournament – Lithuania were easily beaten by Slovakia and Estonia then conceded eight in Belgium on Sunday. It’s disappointing for those who were hoping the minnows might continue to become more competitive, as they seemed to be during the European Championship qualifiers. But the Faroes, bidding to become the new Iceland, are the only (partial) exception.

The larger countries seem to have learned not to take any match lightly so it has become harder for outsiders such as Armenia to spring a surprise.

None of the fancied contenders are out of the tournament as yet. The headache for some of the distinguished names, including Italy and Portugal, is they may struggle to avoid the play-offs. The Italians are more or less resigned to this, as on current results they will need to beat Spain, who are level on points but have scored seven more goals.

Portugal have scored seven more than Switzerland but trail the Swiss by three points after losing to them in the first game. They are due to face each other in the final match, in Lisbon next October, which could be dramatic. But the Netherlands face potentially the biggest problems next year. Trailing France and level on points with Sweden, even their goal difference is not healthy. It seems unthinkable the Dutch could miss out on the World Cup after missing the Euro Championships. But it’s possible. Martin O’Neill and his players still have a long way to go, but can be permitted a small smile of satisfaction.

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