- Associated Press
Thursday, April 1, 2021

A look at the issues facing the major European nations after the first round of World Cup qualifiers and looking ahead to the European Championship:


Just when Germany seemed back on track, calamity. A 2-1 loss to North Macedonia on Wednesday was Germany’s first defeat in World Cup qualifying for 20 years. That cast into doubt all the work Joachim Löw has done to rebuild the team and the decision to let him stay until the European Championship following last year’s 6-0 humbling in Spain. A tough group including France and Portugal awaits Germany at the delayed Euro 2020. It’s worth remembering that the last time Germany lost a World Cup qualifier, it reached the final the following year, finishing runner-up to Brazil in 2002. The Germans are still favorites to qualify from their group this time, given Iceland and Romania have also had troubled starts with losses to surprise leader Armenia.


At least France coach Didier Deschamps won’t have to worry about his goalkeeper. Hugo Lloris underlined his status with a remarkable point-blank save against Bosnia-Herzegovina that was among the best of his career. Raphael Varane remains a commanding figure in central defense, while the fleet-footed Antoine Griezmann still links midfield and attack skillfully. But the fact Deschamps needed Griezmann’s goals also highlights issues in attack. Olivier Giroud’s lack of games for Chelsea is hurting his sharpness and Kylian Mbappe has been bizarrely lackluster. Mbappe has not scored in his past four games for France, including a missed penalty. Encouragingly, though, winger Ousmane Dembele made a scoring return and looks full of confidence.


Diogo Jota has broken up Liverpool’s long-established front three in an impressive - if injury-affected - first season at Anfield and he is starting to look the part at international level, too. Jota was the bright spot for Portugal over the past week, scoring three goals over the three games to outshine Cristiano Ronaldo. Going into the European Championship, Jota looks to have forced his way into what has fast become Portugal’s most talented team in years, with Ronaldo supported by the skill and vision of playmakers Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes and João Félix, and now the incisiveness and pace of Jota. All eyes, naturally, remain trained on Ronaldo, who continues his quest toward the all-time scoring record for a men’s national team. His goal against Luxembourg left him six away from tying the 109 scored by Iran’s Ali Daei.


England coach Gareth Southgate is inching closer to his preferred team, certainly in attack where Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane and Phil Foden look to be his ideal trio. The biggest question marks hang over who is first-choice left back out of Luke Shaw and Ben Chilwell, whether Trent Alexander-Arnold can force his way back into the squad despite a raft of strong right-back alternatives, and who joins the blossoming Declan Rice in central midfield. The biggest winner from the past week might be Mason Mount, who now appears to be a lock in the attacking midfield role like he is at Chelsea.


After three wins and no goals conceded, it’s all looking good for Italy. The Azzurri beat Northern Ireland, Bulgaria and Lithuania all by the same 2-0 scoreline. They extended their unbeaten record to 25 matches and have clearly bounced back from their devastating failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. However, concerns remain up front as the Azzurri should have finished more of their chances. Ciro Immobile scored his first goal for Italy since 2019 against Northern Ireland and also converted a stoppage-time penalty in Lithuania but the Lazio forward also missed several opportunities in that match. Immobile won the European Golden Shoe last year but has been something of an enigma in the national shirt. He has 12 goals in 45 appearances for Italy.


Luis Enrique gave another twist to his rejuvenation of Spain’s national team by starting several young players over the three qualifiers, while also rotating his core group of veterans. Despite a disappointing 1-1 draw with Greece in its opening World Cup qualifier, this group showed signs that it can finally help Spain move beyond the now defunct “tiki-taka” era that once dominated world soccer. Leipzig’s Dani Olmo and Manchester City winger Ferrán Torres both scored goals in Spain’s 2-1 win over Georgia and its 3-1 victory over Kosovo. Barcelona’s 18-year-old Pedri González featured in Spain’s midfield, City’s Eric García played more minutes in defense than Sergio Ramos, and Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper Unai Simón started over David de Gea in all three games.


It’s too early to say whether the injured Eden Hazard will be back in time for the Euro 2020, but top-ranked Belgium might have an adequate replacement for the playmaker in Leandro Trossard. The diminutive Brighton forward has similarities with Hazard, with excellent dribbling skills, good vision and a sense for goal that was on display against Belarus this week when he scored two goals - including a powerful 20-meter shot into the top corner. A late bloomer, the 26-year-old Trossard has been more consistent with his Premier League club recently and seems to be peaking at the right time.


More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC.