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Slovakia may have looked rather unconvincing in the first 20 minutes of their Euro qualifying match against Andorra, particularly considering the fact that their opposition have yet to pick up a point in the tournament, but after Filip Šebo scored the opening goal 21 minutes in, the visitors have dominated possession, rarely allowing the Andorrans to touch the ball.
Šebo's sixth international goal came from a free kick by Marek Hamšík. The Slovak captain sent the kick low through the Andorran defense. Róbert Vittek, in his first match back from injury, was waiting at the near post to send the ball across the face of goal, with Šebo needing just a tap to put the ball in the back of the net.
This is certainly better from the repre than what they showed in their last match, a friendly against Luxembourg, but by no means it is as good as the squad could be. Another goal and Slovakia could breathe more easily, that much closer to getting three points and moving even with Russia at the top of Group B.
Spain looked poor in the first half, while Fernando Torres didn't bring his A game when he came on in the second half, but David Villa provided all of the quality that Spain needed to take a 2-1 win over the Czech Republic, putting them four points clear at the top of their group in Euro 2012 qualifying. With his two goals for Spain, Villa became the country's all time leading scorer, passing Real Madrid legend Raul Gonzalez with his 45th and 46th career goals for La Furia Roja.
Jaroslav Plasil scored on a stunning strike in the 29th minute to put the Czechs ahead, but their advantage wouldn't last very long. The goal gave them hope, but the inevitable happened when Villa scored an equalizer early in the second half to break Raul's scoring record. Just three minutes later, Jan Rezek fouled Andres Iniesta in the box and a penalty kick was given, then converted by Villa to seal the win for Spain.
David Villa is now Spain's all time leading scorer, passing the legendary Raul Gonzalez with his 45th and 46th goals of his Spain career in just his 72nd cap. The Czech Republic scored in the first half and went into halftime up 1-0, but Spain have been a much better team in the second half thus far. Interestingly enough, the man they subbed on to start the half, Fernando Torres, has been poor. Despite the fact that he's contributed to the team in a negative way, they're looking much better.
If Spain hold on to their newfound 2-1 lead, they will hold a four point advantage over the Czech Republic, virtually locking them into qualification for Euro 2012. Their undefeated record appeared to be in jeopardy for an extended period of time, but Spain have surprised no one by engineering a comeback, lead by the man with one of the best scoring records in modern football history.
Well. That match was so boring everyone near me passed out, lured to sleep by the gentle tones of the announcer whose voice barely rose and fell. France, already sitting on a perfect record in Group D, had always looked to be the certain winner in this match, with Luxembourg having not yet scored in Euro qualification, and having only managed to earn one point. Sure enough, goals by Philippe Mexès and Yoann Gourcuff gave France the 2-0 victory, giving them 12 points to date in the group.
It did take nearly 30 minutes for France to score, but once they did there appeared to be no going back. Florent Malouda was dragged down just outside the area, with captain Samir Nasri stepping up to take the free kick. The shot bent at a perfect angle to allow Mexès to get underneath for the headed goal. The goal is the first the Roma defender has scored for his country.
The second goal brought no surprises, coming as it did from the man who'd already scored three goals in three matches. Mexès sent a long ball upfield to where Franck Ribéry was waiting on the left flank. Ribéry sent his pass through a mess of Luxembourg defenders to Gourcuff, who then fired, low and hard, into the back of the net.
It took 73 minutes, but Italy finally got their well deserved goal from former Brazilian international Thiago Motta. The defensive midfielder didn't venture forward very often against Slovenia, but when he did, he made the most of his shooting chance and scored Italy's winning goal, giving them a 1-0 win and the top spot in their Euro 2012 qualifying group. Both teams looked content with a 1-0 draw for an extended period of time, but Antonio Cassano's touch, followed by Motta's finish changed the game considerably and might leave the Slovenians wishing they were more ambitious with their play.
Both teams defended well throughout the match and both goalkeepers turned in great performances, but Italy deserved the win at the end of the day as the more ambitious side with more technical quality. Slovenia lacked creativity throughout the match, unsurprisingly, and their counter-attack wasn't good enough to create a goal out of nothing like it often is. Despite the loss, they will still have a great chance to finish second in their group and qualify for the European Championship. Italy now have a stranglehold on first place, and it would be stunning to see them miss the tournament.
Yoann Gourcuff has scored for France, giving Les Bleus a 2-0 lead over Luxembourg and making it almost certain that France will win their fourth straight match in Group D. Luxembourg have yet to score their first goal in this year's Euro qualifying, although they have brought on Daniel Da Mota, who scored two in a friendly against Slovakia.
France's second goal came just as I had declared that perhaps Franck Ribéry had lost a bit of his talent in his time spent out with injury. Philippe Mexès, scorer of the first goal for France, sent a long ball upfield to Ribéry on the left flank. Ribéry sent the ball inside and Gourcuff pounced, sending a low, hard shot past Jonathan Joubert.
Despite the clear disparity between the teams, much of the match has remained a dull affair. In fact, at this point the only thing that's keeping me awake is the French football kits. Luxembourg would do well to take advice from the Frenchmen, as it appears as though three players could fit inside one shirt. Should they need a specific model, they can glance toward Samir Nasri. I know I am.
A first half goal wasn't enough to get Northern Ireland three points in Belgrade as Serbia turned a dominating second half into a 2-1 victory in Euro 2012 Group C qualifying. With the win, Serbia is up to seven points in the group and starting to make up the ground they lost when they were beaten by Estonia. On the flip side, Northern Ireland almost certainly have to get three points against Slovenia in Belfast on Tuesday if they are to stay in the qualification hunt.
The match was quiet and a strange sight to see because it was played behind closed doors. As punishment for their fans rioting and attacking Italian police after their last qualifier, Serbia was forced to play the match with no fans in the stands. The players, coaches, referees and match officials were joined by only a small group of traveling Northern Ireland supporters in the upper deck, giving the large stadium an eerie feeling.
That eerie feeling didn't stop Northern Ireland from being the better side in the first half, surprising the Serbians. The visitors pushed forward time and time again, finally seeing it pay off when Gareth McAuley struck. A free kick from the right swung into the box and McAuly got his head to it, looping it over the keeper and under the bar for a 1-0 lead.
At halftime, there was no doubt that Northern ireland had been better than Serbia, but while Northern Ireland may have been better in the first half, Serbia was dominant in the second half. Right from the start of the second stanza they pushed forward and pressure the Northern Ireland defense, even forcing a top save, but it didn't pay off until the 61st minute.
Milos Ninkovic found space on the left edge of the box and spotted teammates making runs. He played a low ball across the box and with Northern Ireland defenders scrambling, a toe poke put the ball on Marko Pantelic's foot. The Olympiacos striker quickly turned and shot, putting the ball in the net and the match on level terms.
Eight minutes later Serbia got their game-winning goal. Once again, Ninkovic was at the heart of the move, running at the Northern Ireland defense from deep and finding plenty of space in the center of the pitch. As the defenders kept retreating, Ninkovic kept running and it wasn't until he was 20 yards from goal that a defender stepped up to him. When then defender did, Ninkovic laid a short ball off for Zoran Tosic who hit the ball right away. The ball was well struck and quickly by the keeper for a three-point winning goal.
Twice Serbia almost made it 3-1, but it didn't matter. Northern Ireland could find anything in the attack and Serbia's lead was never in doubt. While they could not celebrate with their fans, Serbia did get to celebrate with their teammates and thousands of empty seats as the final whistle blew with three points in their back pocket.
In a game that looked destined for a final score of 0-0, Thiago Motta has scored for Italy to break the deadlock in their Euro 2012 qualifying match against Slovenia, putting the Azzurri up 1-0. The Inter Milan player had represented Brazil in the past, but not in a competitive game, allowing him to switch his international allegiance. He's played a defensive midfield role today, as always, and hasn't ventured forward much, but the first time was a charm.
Antonio Cassano was the man who provided the assist, laying the ball off to Motta for a 15 yard shot on the left hand side of the penalty area. Samir Handanovic didn't react to Motta's far post shot at all, perhaps surprised that the defensive midfielder opted to shoot. Motta's shot was good, but there was no opposition presented at all as it drifted into the back of the net. Italy have been the more ambitious side and probably deserve to lead, but it's still a bit surprising that they scored. This one looked like it was headed for a scoreless draw.
A poor first half in the books, Serbia turned things around in the first 25 minutes of the second half with a dominating performance that led to an equalizer and now, a go-ahead goal. In the 63rd minute, Serbia got a goal that was almost 20 minutes in the making when Marko Pantelic found the net to equalize. Serbia had been threatening for the entire second half before Pentelic's goal and they just applied more pressure after the goal, finally seeing it pay off when Zoran Tosic put Serbia ahead, 2-1.
Milos Ninkovic did the work to set up Tosic's goal, driving straight up the pitch to make the Northern Ireland defense retreat. Ninkovic took the ball right down the middle and when the Northern Ireland defense finally stepped up to him 20 yards from goal, he simply laid it off for Tosic. Tosic didn't hesitate at all, hitting the ball right away from the edge of the box. The strong shot left the goalkeeper no chance and 71 minutes in, Serbia had their lead.
Eventually the pressure had to result in a goal and it finally did when Marko Pentelic scored for Serbia to get the hosts even on terms with Northern Ireland. A first half goal by Northern Ireland had put the visitors ahead and in the first stanza, there was no doubt that if anyone was to be ahead it should be Northern Ireland. The second half brought a match more in line with pregame expectations as Serbia pressured Northern Ireland time and time again.
In the 63rd minute, Serbia finally got their break through. Milos Ninkovic was played in on the left and cut the ball back across a scrambling Northern Ireland defense. A simple toe poke played the ball on to Pantelic and the Olympiacos forward pounced. He got the ball somewhat under control and while falling to the turf, hit the ball past a helpless goalkeeper for the equalizer.
With the match now even, Northern Ireland will have to find a way to hold onto the point. Serbia have been dominant in the second half and will be on the front foot going for the three points, which any observer has to expect them to get.
Serbia and Northern Ireland may be going to the halftime break in Belgrade with a surprising scoreline, but it hasn't surprised many at the stadium. That's because there aren't many people at the stadium. Those in attendance include the players, the coaching staff, the referees, game officials and a handful of fans in the upper deck that traveled from Northern Ireland. That's about it because the match is being played behind closed doors as punishment for rioting and clashing with police during their qualifier against Italy.
So in front of an empty stadium Serbia and Northern Ireland have played half of a Euro 2012 qualifier that has a pretty routine scoreline, 1-0, but it's not the team that was expected to win the match that is ahead. A 38th minute free kick from the right by Chris Brunt found the head of Gareth McAuley for a looping head that got over the keeper and then dipped below the bar to give Northern Ireland the lead.
Serbia were the heavy favorite coming into the match, but not only are they behind, they've clearly been the poorer side. While Northern Ireland have pushed forward, found some success in wide spaces and been given far too much space at the edge of the box, Serbia haven't made too many forays forward.
With a loss to Estonia already in the books this qualifying campaign, Serbia cannot afford to drop points at home to Northern Ireland, but it looks like they might. Meanwhile, a win here and Northern Ireland could move into second place in Group C.
Philippe Mexès has scored his first goal for his country, in the 28th minute of what has been a very dull affair between France and Luxembourg. The visitors, who earned their sole point thus far in Euro 2012 qualification in a 0-0 draw with Belarus, clearly arrived hoping to simply draw against France, who lead Group D with nine points. The Luxembourgers made a mistake, however, when Florent Malouda was fouled just outside the area. Samir Nasri, playing the role of sexy French captain today, stepped up to take the free kick, which curved over the wall toward the far post. Mexès was there to meet it, sending his header past a scrambling Jonathan Joubert and into the net.
Luxembourg, who have qualified for the European Championships just one time, back in 1964, have likely dug themselves into enough of a hole that there's no way that 2012 will be their year. They may have been bolstered by their 2-1 win over Slovakia, but unfortunately for the Red Lions, no points are awarded for wins in friendlies.
Italy are without wide players and Andrea Pirlo. Slovenia are Slovenia. At halftime of their Euro 2012 qualifying match, the score is 0-0. SURPRISE!!!
Samir Handanovic and Gigi Buffon have actually been forced into some decent saves, but they have all been saves that goalkeepers at their level are expected to make. Basically, though shots have hit the target a few times going both ways, there have been no real clear cut chances. The defenses and strikers are evenly matched going either way. Both midfields can pass and tackle, but both seriously lack flair and creativity.
Basically, this game is everything that anyone who has ever watched these two teams play thought it would be. It's basically the most typical of a match it could possibly be to this point. Italy have played some nice football at times and look like the team more able to score a goal, but if I were a betting man (and I'm not), I would bet on this game staying scoreless until full time.
The Netherlands are in straight-up coast mode, and they're up 2-0 at halftime of their Euro 2012 qualifying match against Hungary without too much effort. Hungary have been the much harder working team and Holland haven't created a great deal of chances, but the chances they did create were converted, and easily. Rafael van der Vaart scored the opener on a great assist by Wesley Sneijder, and Ibrahim Affelay scored the second goal, which should be an absolute clincher, off of a low cross by Gregory van der Wiel.
Chances are, Robin van Persie will run approximately 50 meters throughout the second half. Sneijder is unlikely to do much more running. Holland haven't had to be at their best tonight, and the gap in quality between the two teams is very obvious. It's possible that a lazy attitude could lead to Holland getting exposed, but this seems highly unlikely at this juncture.
Italy are without Andrea Pirlo and any true wide players, which has dictated their team selection for their Euro 2012 qualifying match, away to their neighbors Slovenia. Prandelli has opted to re-unite the strike partnership of Giampaolo Pazzini and Antonio Cassano up top, and it looks like Stefano Mauri will be playing behind them in a 4-3-1-2 lineup. Making up a band of three central midfielders behind Mauri is Alberto Aquilani, Thiago Motta, and Ricardo Montolivo.
Slovenia are lining up as expected, in their very rigid and organized 4-4-2. Milivoje Novaković will be a handful for Italy up top, and he's partnered by the smaller Zlatko Dedic. Valter Birsa will be Slovenia's biggest midfield weapon out on the wing, while Robert Koren is no pushover. Their defense is unspectacular, but without holes, and they will be very difficult for an Italy side lacking wide play and Andrea Pirlo to crack.
Slovenia lineup (Projected 4-4-2): Handanovic; Brecko, Cesar, Suler, Jokic; Birsa, Koren, Radosavljevic, Kirm; Dedic, Novakovic
Italy lineup (Projected 4-3-1-2): Buffon; Maggio, Bonucci, Chiellini, Balzaretti; Aquilani, Thiago Motta, Montolivo; Mauri; Pazzini, Cassano
If you've never seen Romelu Lukaku play, you are missing out. If you are a fan of one of the biggest 15 or so clubs in Europe and you've never seen Romelu Lukaku play, what the hell is wrong with you? This kid is absolutely the hottest property in Europe, and the bidding war for him is going to be absolutely insane. He's 17 years old and he's widely touted as the next Didier Drogba. He's 6'4", 200+ pounds, and insanely quick for a man of his size. He's a deadly finisher with both feet and his head. AND HE'S STILL ATTENDING HIGH SCHOOL. The Euro 2012 Qualifying match between Belgium and Austria airs at 3:30 pm ET on ESPN3.com, and you should watch.
Because Lukaku is still in school (yes, he's opted to finish school), his pro club Anderlecht have basically told all potential suitors to eff off for the time being. Everyone has complied. Big football clubs are often ruthless and evil, but even the likes of Chelsea and Real Madrid aren't terribly interested in screwing with a kid who's actually doing the right thing and finishing school, despite the fact that he's been absolutely clowning on fools for the last two years in a very respectable professional football league.
Belgium and Austria are in a serious fight for a qualification spot in their group, so this game is about much more than just a crazy 17 year old star striker. Belgium have a lot of other great young talents as well, such as Eden Hazard and Steven Defour, so they're always worth watching. And in case you're wondering, I like them to take all three points.
Many of Europe's top national teams have fairly straightforward games this weekend, including Germany's game against Kazakhstan, France's match against Luxembourg, and Russia's visit to Armenia, but there are two significant clashes between sides that will expect to make the trip to Ukraine and Poland in just over a year's time.
The first major clash of the extended football weekend is Slovenia's clash with Italy on Friday. The two sides that went out in the group stage of last year's World Cup currently occupy the top two places in group C, with the Azzurri three points ahead of their hosts after four games. Fortunately for Slovenia, Italy have drawn their last three games (against Northern Ireland, Romania, and Germany) while Slovenian striker Milivoje Novaković has been in good form at club level for Bundesliga side Cologne, scoring six goals in his last seven games.
Later on Friday the top two sides in Group I, Spain and the Czech Repulic, face off in Granada. They are also separated by three points, with the leading side on a slight dip in form -- Spain have won all of their (mostly easy) games in Euro 2012 Qualifiers, but received a pair of thumpings from the only good sides they've played since winning the World Cup. The Czechs' recent results haven't been too much better, and they will need to tighten up at the back to give themselves a chance in this game. Young Lazio striker Libor Kozák could make his international debut for the Czech Republic, while Spain will miss Carles Puyol and Cesc Fábregas due to injuries.
Elsewhere, Germany will look to extend their lead at the top of Group A with a second win against Kazakhstan, while Austria can try to close that gap in a playoff-spot battle against Belgium; Greece will try to overtake Croatia in Group F as the former European champions take on Malta, Denmark will face Norway in a Viking derby for top spot in Group H, and the Republic of Ireland will try to return to winning ways in their qualifying campaign against Macedonia.
Austria v Belgium, Group A, 19:30 (3:30 PM)
Hungary v Netherlands, Group E, 19:30 (3:30 PM)
Serbia v Northern Ireland, Group C, 19:30 (3:30 PM)
Slovenia v Italy, Group C, 19:45 (3:45 PM)
Luxembourg v France, Group D, 20:00 (4:00 PM)
Spain v Czech Republic, Group I, 21:00 (5:00 PM)
Armenia v Russia, Group B, 15:00 (11:00 AM)
Wales v England, Group G, 15:00 (11:00 AM)
Bulgaria v Switzerland, Group G, 16:45 (12:45 PM)
Georgia v Croatia, Group F, 17:00 (1:00 PM)
Cyprus v Iceland, Group H, 18:00 (2:00PM)
Israel v Latvia, Group F, 18:05 (2:05 PM)
Bosnia-Hercegovina v Romania, Group D, 18:15 (2:15 PM)
Albania v Belarus, Group D, 19:00 (3:00 PM)
Andorra v Slovakia, Group B, 19:00 (3:00 PM)
Germany v Kazakhstan, Group A, 19:00 (3:00 PM)
Norway v Denmark, Group H, 19:00 (3:00 PM)
Malta v Greece, Group F, 19:30 (3:30 PM)
Rep of Ireland v FYR Macedonia, Group B, 19:45 (3:45 PM)
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