GENEVA: It took a stunning goal for World Cup champions France to get their first win in international football’s newest competition on Sunday.
Not from superstar Kylian Mbappe who did tap in the first goal of France’s 2-1 win over the Netherlands in the UEFA Nations League game and not from Antoine Griezmann or Paul Pogba, as France fielded all 10 outfield starters from the World Cup final.
Instead, Olivier Giroud, with one thunderous left-foot volley in the 75th minute at Stade de France, matched his entire tally of on-target efforts during seven games in Russia.
The Chelsea forward’s first goal in 11 games for France was his 32nd for Les Bleus, one more than Zinedine Zidane.
Elsewhere in the Nations League, Denmark’s star players returned after a brief strike to beat Wales 2-0, and Georgia and Macedonia both won again to suggest they could be the fourth-tier underdogs using a complex competition format to help qualify for the 2020 European Championship.
UEFA launched the Nations League to give all its 55 member countries winnable competitive games and eliminate often disliked and mostly worthless friendly games.
There is still space for some friendlies, though, and Germany beat Peru 2-1 Sunday. On his debut in his home stadium, Hoffenheim midfielder Nico Schulz scored the winning goal in the 85th minute.
Germany and France kicked off the Nations League on Thursday with a 0-0 draw in Munich, and Mbappe and Giroud ensured the favoured French now have control in League A of three-team Group 1 which concludes in November.
Mbappe was alone at the far post in the 14th to finish a fierce pass from the left by Blaise Matuidi into an unguarded net.
The Dutch troubled France in the second half, and Ryan Babel — his hair dyed red — equalised in the 67th when he muscled aside defender Benjamin Pavard to connect with right-back Kenny Tete’s cross.
Giroud struck from a cross by substitute Djibril Sidibe to ensure a post-match party atmosphere when most of a near-80,000 crowd stayed to celebrate a parade of the World Cup trophy.
DENMARK STRIKE BACK
With their star players restored by an interim deal in a contract dispute, Denmark eased past Wales in Group 4 of second-tier League B.
Christian Eriksen scored midway through each half, the second from a penalty, in Aarhus. Wales, coached by former Manchester United star Ryan Giggs, began the Nations League by beating Ireland 4-1 on Thursday but found the full-strength Danes too much.
Eriksen and his team-mates refused to play last week during stalled talks on commercial rights. It left Denmark fielding untried lower-division and futsal players in a 3-0 loss to Slovakia in a friendly.
Slovakia lost their Nations League debut 1-0 at Ukraine in League B’s Group 1.
Ukraine won their second Nations League game in four days, giving goal scorer Andriy Yarmolenko a change of fortune. Yarmolenko, who has lost all four English Premier League games with new club West Ham United, scored a penalty in the 80th minute.
There was almost no one in the Lviv stadium to see it. A UEFA order from 2015 forced Ukraine to play in an empty stadium as punishment for racist behavior at a 2016 European Championship qualifying game.
Ukraine’s six-point lead over Slovakia and the Czech Republic leaves coach Andriy Shevchenko’s team favourite to win the group in November.
That would earn promotion to top-tier League A, plus a place in March 2020 playoffs to qualify for Euro 2020 if Ukraine fail to advance through the traditional qualifying groups next year.
In third-tier League C, Bulgaria beat Norway 1-0 in a clash of teams which also won opening games Thursday.
Substitute Radoslav Vasilev settled the game in Sofia with a 58th-minute header, and Norway finished with 10 men after Havard Nordtveit’s red card in the 88th. In the same Group 3, Cyprus needed an 89th-minute own-goal by Slovenia to win 2-1.
The Nations League format means at least one of Europe’s low-ranked League D teams will qualify for Euro 2020 through playoffs.
Georgia and Macedonia each sealed a second win Sunday. Georgia beat Latvia 1-0 to lead Group 1, and Macedonia heads Group 4 after beating Armenia 2-0. In the same group, Liechtenstein beat Gibraltar 2-0.
Published in Dawn, September 11th, 2018