BEVERLY HILLS, March 26, (THEWILL) – The World Cup qualifiers for the UEFA zone opened up in the March international break with crunch ties across Europe as countries locked horns in the battle for places at the Qatar 2022 FIFA tournament. With sterling performances for their club-sides in the 2020/2021 campaign so far, some players gave a notable account of their inclusion in the national teams.
Of particular interest was the Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who, in typical fashion, was decisive on his return to international football. The striker played a key part in the only goal for Sweden by Viktor Claesson against Georgia, played at the Friends Arena in Solna, Sweden.
After nearly five years away from the national team with his retirement from international football, the 39-year-old striker for Serie A side AC Milan became the oldest Swede to play for his country. The attacking quartet of Ibrahimovic, Claesson, Alexander Isak and Dejan Kulusevski peppered the Georgian area to take the lead 10 minutes before the interval.
Ibrahimovic controlled a pass with his chest in the box and attempted to score with a volley from a tight angle but the ball reached Claesson and all he needed to bundle it home was a well-directed touch. But for their carelessness in possession, the Swedes could have scored more.
The Georgians tried to craft a few decent chances of their own but with minimal success. Their best chance to get a leveller fell to substitute midfielder Levan Shengelia in the 82nd minute, but Swedish keeper Kristoffer Nordfeldt made a superb save to keep his clean sheet intact and allow Sweden take all points on offer.
The match for Ibrahimovic ended without him able to add to his record haul of 62 international goals but he had a yellow card to show for his efforts. He was booked by French referee Benoit Bastien for dissent before he was replaced by Robin Quaison with 16 minutes of regulation time remaining.
In another match played some 900 miles away at the Puskas Arena in Budapest, Hungary, the peerless Pole Robert Lewandowski of Bavarian giants Bayern Munich ensured the points were shared between Hungary and Poland with a well-struck thunderous 83rd-minute equaliser.
It was a never-say-die fightback by the Poles to earn the 3-3 draw as Hungary took the lead after just six minutes, when Roland Sallai beat Wojciech Szczesny with a low shot at the near post. Early in the second period, the Marco Rossi-coached team doubled their advantage through Adam Szalai. The final result masked the fact that Poland was yet to get an attempt at goal all this while.
However, Polish manager Paulo Sousa devised a solution and a triple substitution introducing Kamil Glik, Krzysztof Piatek and Kamil Jozwiak made the difference to force a point for the Polish side in their first qualifier. Piatek beat Hungarian keeper Peter Gulacsi with a confident finish and moments later Hungary’s defence crumbled, allowing Jozwiak to level matters.
But, a defiant Hungary team forced their lead back through Willi Orban and it was left to the brilliant Lewandowski to earn his country a point. He accomplished this with a fierce drive into the top corner after he was found inside the box by Bartosz Bereszynski with only seven minutes left in the tie. However, that was still enough time for Hungarian defender Attila Fiola to get sent off after a second yellow.
For the German’s, the man who cannot stop scoring, Ilkay Gundogan, continued his fine form in front of goal as Die Mannschaft easily stomped through their opening World Cup qualifier. Gundogan’s Man of the Match performance was capped with his goal, which together with goals from Leon Goretzka and Kai Havertz secured a 3-0 win over Iceland in Group J at the Schauinsland-Reisin-Arena, Duisburg in Germany.
Two German players, Jonas Hofmann and Marcel Halstenberg, were quarantined earlier on Thursday as Hofmann tested positive for Covid-19 and Halstenberg was identified as a category one contact ahead of the fixture but the match went ahead, to the pleasure of German coach Joachim Löw, who is due to step down after the European Championship this year.
In Israel’s Bloomfield Stadium in Tel-Aviv, Martin Braithwaite, striker for Catalan La Liga club Barcelona was yellow-carded in the 7th minute and entered his name in the scoresheet in the 13th through a Jonas Wind assist. The goal got his country, Denmark, off to an encouraging start in Group F as they cruised to a 2-0 win away to Israel.
Although Braithwaite squandered a glorious one-on-one with the Israel’s goalkeeper Ofir Marciano in the 10th minute, he atoned for it with his opener. Provider turned scorer after the interval as Wind got his name on the scoresheet as well, when he reacted the quickest to a poor clearance from Hatem Abd Elhamed to fire home and double the lead for a sweet Danish three points.
There were other notable wins on Thursday such as England’s 5-nil victory against Europe’s most thrashed team San Marino; Italy’s 2-nil win over Northern Ireland that saw goal poacher Ciro Immobile grabbing the second; Switzerland beating Bulgaria 3-1 with a splendid Xherdan Shaqiri performance; while Greece forced through a 1-1 draw against Spain and Scotland also drew 2-2 with Austria.