The international break has drawn to a close and European club soccer mercifully resumes this weekend. But before we play it forward into the weekend’s league action, let’s take a look back at what we learned about the continent’s big guns from the latest round of UEFA World Cup qualifiers.
Costa Finally Clicking with Spain
Dropped by former manager Vicente del Bosque after his disastrous World Cup campaign, striker Diego Costa has been restored the Spanish lineup by new manager Julian Lopetegui and the Chelsea striker has been impactful. Costa stored twice last month against Lichtenstein and played 67 minutes in last week’s 1-1 draw with Italy.
But he came up big time on Monday against Albania, opening the scoring in what proved a 2-0 win that saw Spain seize control of the group. The Spanish have been without a regular striker basically since hey-days of David Villa and Fernando Torres, who both ended their international careers in 2014. But in Costa, and in Nolito who also scored against Albania, Spain finally looked to have solved their striker problem.
Italy Needs Time
There was something impressive about Italy against Spain last week. Although they looked the inferior team for much of the match, they still managed to come from behind to draw Spain, maintaining their unbeaten record at home. They followed up with a win over Macedonia that while not exactly easy for them, sees them maintaining pressure on Spain at the top of the group.
But there were problems on display in both games, namely the way the Azzurri gave up soft goals in both matches. Had it not been for a late rally courtesy of striker Ciro Immobile – who netted twice against Macedonia, Italy would’ve lost.
Italy were a surprise package at the Euros last summer. They’ve been through a bad case of the international doldrums for the past few years. They’re not exactly looking look world-beaters again (do they ever?), but they’re definitely on the right course.
The Netherlands are Getting Better
The Netherlands, long one of European football’s prevailing traditional powers, hit rock bottom earlier this year when they failed to qualify for Euro 2016. There’s been some turnover in the team since then and as the Dutch look to rebuild, manager Frank De Boer fielded a team against France on Monday that was the first in over 10 years not to feature one of the “big four” of Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart. They of course lost that game 1-0.
But the result doesn’t tell the whole story of a Dutch team that for long stretches played the stacked France side that made it to the final of the Euros last summer to a halt. Things might have gone better for the Dutch had not Quincy Promes, the player who scored both goals in Friday’s 2-0 win over Belarus, not hobbled off injured early in the first half.
While qualifying for Russia 2018 is anything but in the bag for the Dutch, De Boer has his team on the right track and there is some interesting new talent coming through as the Oranje look to turn the page on the generation that finished second and third respectively in the two most recent World Cups.
France and Germany Still Teams to Beat
Despite struggling at times against the Dutch, France rolled over Bulgaria three days earlier and look to be carrying on with the form that saw them make the Euro final. Most encouraging is the emergence of striker Kevin Gameiro who might just be the striker they were lacking last summer with Karim Benzema in the doghouse and Olivier Giroud his misfiring self. Although they fell short at the final hurdle last summer, France are well on their way to qualifying and will go into the World Cup among the favorites.
The same must be said of defending champions Germany who registered relatively comfortable wins over the Czech Republic and Northern Ireland this week. Manager Joachim Loew went as far as to call the 2-0 over Northern Ireland “fairly effortless.” The World Cup holders have a 100 percent record in qualifying and have now won three in a row and haven’t even conceded a goal since the 1-1 draw with Italy that saw them knocked out of the Euros on penalties.
Same Old England… Kind of
What to think of jolly old England? Just when a relatively comfortable 2-0 win against Malta gets you thinking they’re finally starting to click on some level, they’re held to a scoreless draw by Slovenia. Granted, this is a team with an evolving managerial situation. Sam Allardyce is gone after one game in charge and interim manager Gareth Southgate hasn’t had long to work with his players.
But the 46-year-old manager of England’s U21 side is getting good reviews for what he’s done so far. For one, he had the courage to drop Wayne Rooney to bench against Slovenia. But while Malta was comfortable, Slovenia was a narrowly averted disaster. England were outplayed and were it not for a number of fine saves from keeper Joe Hart, they would have lost. Scoring goals looks more difficult than it should be for this team, without Rooney they have no on-field leader and even Southgate admitted the defense was a “mess” against Slovenia.
Still in spite of all that, there’s something about this team that always makes you think they could be on the verge of something. Much will depend on whether Southgate gets the job, as some players have urged, or the FA appoints someone else.
UEFA World Cup qualifying will resume next month.