Germany are vulnerable and beware North Macedonia… TEN things we learned from World Cup qualifiers


Some of Europe’s most prominent nations still have plenty to think about ahead of Euro 2020 following the last set of international fixtures before the tournament gets underway in June.

Germany suffered a first home World Cup qualifying loss in 20 years against a Goran Pandev-inspired North Macedonia, while world champions France were sluggish in their recent outings.

But there was better news for the likes of Italy and Belgium, who showed their credentials and strength in depth with convincing wins over the course of the last week.

Here, Sportsmail looks at some of the key points that can be taken away from the matches and what it could mean for the delayed Euros this summer. 

Germany suffered their first World Cup qualifier home defeat for 20 years against North Macedonia

Germany suffered their first World Cup qualifier home defeat for 20 years against North Macedonia

Germany show their vulnerable side

Not since a famous 5-1 drubbing by England in Munich had Germany lost a World Cup qualifier on home soil. But that run came to a crashing end against minnows North Macedonia.

Joachim Low’s side had been uninspiring in some periods in their first two qualifiers of the week, despite eventually overcoming both Iceland and Romania. But there was to be no lucky third escape on Wednesday evening.

Poor finishing from the likes of Serge Gnabry and most noticeably Timo Werner – with the £53million Chelsea striker spurning an incredible chance just before North Macedonia’s winner – appeared to show the lack of cutting edge that can rear its ugly head.

Timo Werner missed a glorious chance just before North Macedonia scored the winner

Timo Werner missed a glorious chance just before North Macedonia scored the winner

But more worryingly for Germany boss Low – who leaves his post after this summer’s tournament – the defence left Pandev unmarked when there appeared to be little danger and failed to adequately track the run of Napoli’s Eljif Elmas for their winner.

It was game management that ultimately failed the hosts in Duisburg, conceding in added time at the end of the first half and five minutes before the full-time whistle, with many of those on the field expected to form a key part of Germany’s starting XI at the Euros.

The potential return of more experienced heads such as Thomas Muller and Mats Hummels could help resolve the latter issues. But Low still has plenty of work to do if he wants a glorious end to his swansong as head coach of his national side. 

Beware North Macedonia

While Germany’s problems were clear for all to see, it was an eventful World Cup qualifying week for North Macedonia.

An entertaining game in Romania ended in a 3-2 defeat, but confidence was then rebuilt with a 5-0 thrashing of fellow minnows Lichtenstein.

But few would have predicted causing the upset of the Qatar 2022 qualifiers so far by becoming just the second team after Sweden to score two goals past Germany on their soil since England in 2001.

Veteran striker Goran Pandev led the line brilliantly against Joachim Low's men in Duisburg

Veteran striker Goran Pandev led the line brilliantly against Joachim Low’s men in Duisburg

Veteran forward Pandev was still leading the line strongly in Duisburg, and capitalised on being left completely free by Antonio Rudiger and Co. to equalise before Elmas’ winner. 

‘These lads have made North Macedonia proud against the winners of four World Cup titles and three European Championships,’ the North Macedonia coach, Igor Angelovski, said. ‘We’ve never beaten a team with so many titles. Now we have to get some rest as what we have accomplished still hasn’t sunk in.’ 

Angelovski will hope it has been digested by the time this summer’s Euros come about, which his team qualified for via the Nations League playoffs.

If they can produce similarly efficient performances and score when handed the opportunities, as well as some luck along the way, they could well spring surprises on Austria, Ukraine and the Netherlands in the group stages. 

Italy ticking along 

Few major sides impressed quite as much as Roberto Mancini’s Italy over the course of the international break with three consecutive 2-0 wins.

Having missed out on the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Italy road to redemption got off to an excellent start with routine wins against Northern Ireland and Bulgaria, with the likes of Ciro Immobile and Manuel Locatelli on target.

But when Mancini rang the changes against Lithuania, there was no let up as they once again found the net through substitute Sensi and Immobile, to ensure they top Group C ahead of the Euros. 

Roberto Mancini rang the changes against Lithuania, but Italy made it three 2-0 wins in a row

Roberto Mancini rang the changes against Lithuania, but Italy made it three 2-0 wins in a row

But the statistics prove just how much Italy have improved since their humiliation three years ago, and how far the foundation they have built may take them this summer.

Italy are unbeaten in their last 25 matches in all competitions, winning all but five of those matches. Mancini said after the Lithuania win that ‘you cannot be brilliant all the time, but his side have not been far off.

They have also won each of their last six matches without conceding a goal, with the most recent five matches ending 2-0 in their favour.

A couple of friendlies precede the start of their Euro Group A fixtures against Turkey, Switzerland and Wales, and with goals from Immobile supported by a watertight defence, Mancini’s men are shaping up nicely as they look for victory in a tournament for the first time since 2006.

Spain still have keeper issues

Regardless of who Luis Enrique and his predecessors have chosen as their goalkeeper, blunders never seem to be far away.

David de Gea has had his fair share of errors for Spain, even though Enrique said in October blaming the Manchester United goalkeeper had become some people’s ‘bad habit’ after his questionable positioning for Ukraine’s goal.

Chelsea flop Kepa Arrizabalaga has not had much of a look in either, with Enrique appearing to test the water with Athletic Bilbao’s Unai Simon.

Unai Simon went charging out of his box and then lost the ball to Kosovo's Besar Halimi

Unai Simon went charging out of his box and then lost the ball to Kosovo’s Besar Halimi

But it was the 23-year-old’s turn to suffer an embarrassing moment on the pitch, galloping out of his goal to chase his own clearance down before being robbed by Kosovo’s Besar Halimi, who finished from around 40 yards.

Simon also conceded three goals from the four shots combined taken by Greece, Georgia and Kosovo in the latest round of international fixtures. 

He was nevertheless given a vote of confidence by Enrique who said after the game: ‘Unai just has to keep doing what he’s doing because he’s given me a lot of confidence. I don’t judge my players on their mistakes. They are part of sport. Learning to avoid making these little mistakes is part of player development. ‘

But Iker Casillas and de Gea’s mistakes at the 2014 and 2018 World Cups made any sort of meaningful progress at major tournaments extremely difficult, and Enrique will have to find a solution soon if his side are to compete at the latter stages of the Euros. 

Giroud remains key to French success 

He may not like it at the best of times – and why would he when he is France’s second highest goalscorer of all time – but Olivier Giroud’s impact off the bench appears unrivalled in Europe.

In Didier Deschamps own words, his World Cup holders were ‘below par’ in the first half against Bosnia and Herzegovina.

But the 34-year-old replaced Kingsley Coman just before the hour and not for the first time in his club or international career, the Chelsea forward’s impact was immediate.

Bosnia’s central defenders were too occupied with Giroud’s aerial presence that they allowed Antoine Griezmann a free header in the only goal of the game in Sarajevo.

Olivier Giroud (left) occupied Bosnia's defenders allowing Antoine Griezmann to score

Olivier Giroud (left) occupied Bosnia’s defenders allowing Antoine Griezmann to score

Giroud has played 106 times and scored 44 goals for his country, and only Thierry Henry has more goals for the France national side with 51 strikes.

Deschamps’ men could well face a number of low blocks and five-man defences, with Hungary in particular likely to try and stifle the pace of Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele. 

And should other sides aim to frustrate France and look to hit them on the break, Giroud may well provide the perfect solution to that dilemma in the summer. 

Portugal struggling to find their best attacking fix

An eventful week for Portugal left the Euro 2016 winners with plenty of questions on how to extract the best performances from their star men.

Cristiano Ronaldo distracted some of the continuous talk about his outburst against Serbia – which saw him throw the captain’s armband onto the floor – with a goal to help spare his side’s blushes against Luxembourg.

But his frustration at the decision not to ward a last-gasp goal against the Serbs hid the frustration of not only throwing away a two-goal lead, but also of more personal frustration following recent underwhelming performances against the likes of Croatia and France too.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes were largely unable to make an impact for Portugal

Cristiano Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes were largely unable to make an impact for Portugal 

The same appears to apply for Bruno Fernandes, who has 23 goals in all competitions for Manchester United this season but has just two goals and four assists in 27 appearances for his country.

Liverpool star Diogo Jota appears to be flying after his brace against Serbia and his goal against Luxembourg.

But if Portugal are to repeat their heroics of five years ago, then they will need Ronaldo and Fernandes firing on all cylinders, which is something that is not currently the case under Fernando Santos. 

England need to bring pace back into side

In the first half against Poland, Gareth Southgate’s side – except for a few more goals – demonstrated exactly why they are considered such an exciting crop of players.

But the second period highlighted exactly the lack of pace and verve out wide that England suffer from without the likes of Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka.

England dominated the first half and dictated play well in midfield in particular before Harry Kane had put his side into the lead from the penalty spot.

England too often relied on Raheem Sterling as their pacey option down the left against Poland

England too often relied on Raheem Sterling as their pacey option down the left against Poland

But too often in the second half was Raheem Sterling the only natural outlet out wide, and having won the penalty in the first half he was well marshalled by the Poland defence and thwarted by Wojciech Szczesny.

Southgate only turned to the likes of Reece James and Jesse Lingard once Harry Maguire had restored England’s lead five minutes from time, but the likes of Croatia and Scotland may be less forgiving in that sense at the Euros.

Injury prevented the trio of Sancho, Rashford and Saka from featuring, and despite England’s perfect return from the latest qualifiers, Southgate will require the skillset of that trio at some point and must call on them this summer when necessary.

Poland can still function without Lewandowski 

They may have ultimately come up short at Wembley on Wednesday evening, but Poland gave England an almighty fright. The visitors had hardly looked in the game in the first half and deservedly went into the break behind.

But the team that emerged from the changing rooms was slightly more daring and were rewarded by John Stones’ poor defending, with Jakub Moder smashing past Nick Pope after a one-two with Arkadiusz Milik.

They looked comfortable until Maguire rifled home and competed without injured star Robert Lewandowski, with the Bayern Munich forward expected to miss the next month. 

The 32-year-old should have recovered by the time they face Slovakia, Spain and Sweden in Group E, but even if their star man is unavailable, they have shown through the likes of striker Krzysztof Piatek and Szczesny at the other end of the field that they still have plenty to offer. 

Jakub Moder scored the equaliser for Poland, who held their own without Robert Lewandowski

Jakub Moder scored the equaliser for Poland, who held their own without Robert Lewandowski

Belgium’s strength in depth among the best 

Belgium may well be among the smaller countries in northern Europe but they recent results show their national football side consists of an abundance of talent.

Regulars Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne were on target in the win against Wales while the Inter Milan forward also scored in the draw against Czech Republic.

But giving some of the fringe players a chance to stake their claim ahead of this summer’s Euros, Roberto Martinez’s men smashed no fewer than eight goals past a hapless Belarus.

Michy Batshuayi was one of the fringe players to showcase their talent against Belarus

Michy Batshuayi was one of the fringe players to showcase their talent against Belarus

Michy Batshuayi spoke of feeling more valued with Belgium than at Crystal Palace after netting the opener, and was joined by fellow Premier League stars Leandro Trossard, Dennis Praet and Christian Benteke in finding the net.

Both De Bruyne and Lukaku were therefore given the night off while Youri Tielemans only appeared as a substitute in Leuven.

Belgium reached the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup, and with squad depth as excellent at this in the attacking areas, they look destined for another long run in a major tournament. 

Beware of Denmark 

Denmark have demonstrated a remarkable piece of form during the World Cup qualifiers, and their second-half goalscoring spree in their 4-0 win in Austria saw no let up.

There was little to separate the sides in the first half but after Andreas Skov Olsen fired home, a flurry of goals followed, including one from Tottenham midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg.

They now top Group F following their three recent wins by an aggregate score of 14-0, which includes a 2-0 win in Israel and an 8-0 thrashing of Moldova, 

Denmark are now unbeaten in their last 12 World Cup qualifying matches and have conceded just five goals in the process. 

And with Leicester City’s Kasper Schmeichel, Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen, Bundesliga duo Thomas Delaney and Youssef Poulsen, they will certainly be a team to watch Finland, Belgium and Russia at the Euros.

Denmark top Group F following their three recent wins by an aggregate score of 14-0

Denmark top Group F following their three recent wins by an aggregate score of 14-0

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