So England won in Skopje, Peter Crouch’s shot bouncing down from the crossbar to clear the goal-line by about two feet in the 46th minute to take his record to 11 goals in 14 games. It was no more than he deserved on the evening as his work-rate was exemplary, laying off the ball well and tackling back when needed. The team performance was reasonably solid, the Macedonians created few telling chances and ultimately as the first half wore on it became apparent that it was a case of one goal would do the trick but two would make it comfortable.
As it was England went in level at the break, a combination of poor finishing and bad luck. The shooting from distance was, I thought, wasteful; very few of the shots were on target and none really tested the ‘keeper. Inside the area, Crouch had a dipping header tipped over although it looked like it would clear the bar in any case whilst Defoe’s improvised bicycle kick left the ‘keeper wrong-footed but finished up wide of the post. The same player wasted a golden opportunity by volleying over from fifteen yards. Fat Frank at least improved on his shooting, forcing a good save from twenty or so yards. In the second half, Crouch almost got his second when his snapshot went just wide of the post. Macedonia at least threatened more the, Robinson saved well from Pendev, Sakiri beat him and the post whilst Ashley Cole cleared off of the line. Overall, England will be pleased to have six out of six and no goals conceded in three games especially with Russia and Croatia playing out a goalless draw earlier today. Israel stuck four past Andorra but in a pleasant contrast to Saturday, the Andorrans actually had a shot on goal and scored to leave themselves with a 4 – 1 defeat.
It is tough to call the result of the day with three contenders. First up, Northern Ireland put Saturdays woeful performance firmly into the past by coming back from 0 – 1 and 1 – 2 down to beat Spain 3 – 2 in Belfast, courtesy of a David Healy hat-trick. Opening the scoring with a scrambled equaliser that Casillas should have saved, the second a finely executed set – piece and the third an excellent lob from the edge of the area. Xavi and David Villa got Spain’s goals. The second contender was France’s 3 – 1 win over reigning World Champions Italy, gold ball and all. Thierry Henry scored the second and earned himself a booking to boot. The final contender was that “ruthless German efficiency” (© every lazy journalist) which manifested in a 13 – 0 away win in San Marino. This is nothing else is the most compelling argument for a pre-qualifying tournament. Lukas Podolski hit four whilst a brace each from Miroslav Klose, Thomas Hitzelsperger and Bastian Schweinsteiger took it to double figures. Three further goals from Michael Ballack, Bernd Schneider and Arne Freidrich completed the rout.
Elsewhere, Robin van Persie scored twice in Holland’s 3 – 0 over Belarus whilst in the same Group, Bulgaria beat Slovenia 3 – 0 to climb to second place. Group A saw Finland earn a commendable 1 – 1 draw with Portugal, leaving them top after their win in Poland at the weekend. The Poles improved on that result by drawing 1 – 1 with Serbia as did Azerbijan and Kazakhstan. Belgium won 1 – 0 in Armenia to leave it a three way tie at the top.
Group B’s other matches saw Scotland take their tally to six points with a well earned 2 – 1 win in Lithuania, leaving them joint top with France although Ukraine kicked off with a narrow 3 – 2 victory over Georgia, effectively ruling the latter out of the race as they have just three points from three games. Scotland’s next two fixtures are at home to France, followed by a trip to Ukraine so if they can get 2 points from them, they will be handily placed to make a serious push for second spot.
Group C saw Norway and Turkey win but make hard work of their 2 – 0 victories over Moldova and Malta respectively. Hungary screwed up Bosnia’s attempt to push for second with a 3 – 1 victory on their travels. Group D saw the Czech Republic come out as comfortable 3 – 0 winners in Slovakia leaving the Tomas Rosicky Massive favourites to join the Germans in the finals of Euro 2008. Wales and the Republic of Ireland always had a tough task and must hope that one of the favourites drops a huge ricket en route to be able to qualify.
Sweden took full advantage of Spain’s cock-up in Belfast with a 3 – 1 win over Liechtenstein, and no, Freddie Ljungberg couldn’t score for them either. Iceland meanwhile, proved to everyone that they are not as good as they seemed to be by going down 2 – 0 at home to Denmark, leaving four teams on three points but you would still fancy Sweden and Spain to put the Danes noses out of joint by pushing them into third in this group.
Finally, Theo Walcott was the only other scorer from Arsenal tonight as he got the opener for England’s U-21 side in their 3 – 2 win over Switzerland that put them into the play-offs for the European Championships for that age group.