LONDON: European giants Germany, Italy and England all got off to a winning start in World Cup qualifying, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic marked his return to international football with an assist to help Sweden to victory on Thursday.
The 39-year-old Ibrahimovic, who last played for Sweden at the 2016 European Championship, set up Viktor Johan Anton Claesson’s first-half goal in a 1-0 win over Georgia.
Germany coach Joachim Loew began his farewell tour with a 3-0 win against Iceland in Duisberg. The German team followed the example of Norway on Wednesday in making a protest before the start of the game, lining up in Tee-shirts spelling out “Human Rights”.
It was an apparent statement about human rights abuses in Qatar, which is under scrutiny because of its discriminatory laws and conditions for the migrant workers who are helping to build infrastructure for the World Cup.
“We have the World Cup coming up and there will be discussions about it ... we wanted to show we are not ignoring that,” goalscorer Leon Goretzka told broadcaster RTL. We have a large reach — and we can use it to set an example for the values we want to stand for. That was clear.”
After the Norway protest, FIFA said it would not be sanctioning the team, saying it supported free speech.
There was also a comfortable opening win for England, who beat San Marino 5-0 at Wembley.
After failing to qualify for the last World Cup for the first time in six decades, Italy got their campaign off to a positive start with a 2-0 win over Northern Ireland.
There was disappointment for Spain, however, as they were held to a 1-1 draw at home by Greece.
Germany took a 2-0 lead in the opening seven minutes and the result was never in doubt after that.
The opening goal came after two minutes as Joshua Kimmich lobbed into the Iceland penalty area and Serge Gnabry knocked it back for a third Bayern player, Leon Goretzka, to score with a calm finish.
Five minutes later, Kai Havertz made it 2-0 after another defence-splitting pass from Kimmich released Leroy Sane who squared it back for the Chelsea forward to curl in a low shot.
Manchester City’s Ilkay Gundogan continued his fine recent goalscoring form, collecting the ball 10 minutes after the break and drilling home a low shot.
It was a commanding way to bounce back from a 6-0 loss to Spain in November which heralded the end of the 15-year Loew era. He will step down as coach after the European Championship this summer.
Elsewhere in Group ‘J’, Ianis Hagi’s 86th-minute goal gave Romania a 3-2 win over North Macedonia, just after the North Macedonians had completed a comeback from 2-0 down. Liechtenstein came close to earning their first point in a World Cup qualifying campaign since 2013, but Noah Frommelt’s 83rd-minute own goal handed a 1-0 win to Armenia.
First-half goals from Domenico Berardi and Ciro Immobile were enough for Italy to ease past the Northern Ireland in their first World Cup match since their humiliating failure to qualify for the 2018 tournament in Russia.
Berardi scored his fourth goal in five internationals after racing through to meet Alessandro Florenzi’s defence-splitting pass before lashing the opener past Bailey Peacock-Farrell from a tight angle.
Immobile doubled the hosts’ lead in Parma by ending a rapid counter-attack with a near-post shot that squeezed home, and despite an improved second-half performance from the away side Italy easily held on for the win.
They sit second in Group ‘C’, level on points with Switzerland who beat Bulgaria 3-1.
England began their path to the 2022 World Cup with the easiest of wins against the planet’s lowest-ranked national team in an empty stadium.
James Ward-Prowse and Ollie Watkins scored their first international goals as England thumped San Marino, with Dominic Calvert-Lewin hitting a brace and stand-in captain Raheem Sterling also netting at Wembley.
In the other Group ‘I’ matches, Robert Lewandowski struck a thunderous 83rd-minute equaliser as Poland fought back to earn a 3-3 draw with Hungary in a pulsating game in Budapest and Albania beat Andorra 1-0.
IBRA FEELING GOOD AFTER WINNING SWEDEN RETURN
Ibrahimovic came out of international retirement ahead of this summer’s European Championship.
And it took the AC Milan forward just 35 minutes to make an impact when he controlled a pass on his chest and scooped the ball into the middle of the area, where Claesson took a touch and drove a low shot into the net from close range.
Ibrahimovic played almost the whole matchat the Friends Arena just outside Stockholm before being substituted off six minutes from time.
The AC Milan forward had to hold back the tears as he spoke to reporters on Monday about his international comeback, and he was in good spirits after a win that puts Sweden top of Group ‘B’.
“It felt good. It felt like it was my first international match. It was a lot of adrenaline,” Ibrahimovic told Sverige Radio.
Sweden lead their group two points ahead of Greece and Spain.
Greece players celebrated loudly after holding Spain to the draw at the Nuevo Los Crmenes Stadium in Granada.
Spain entered the match heavily favoured after routing Germany in the Nations League in their previous match and Alvaro Morata gave the home side the lead with a superb control and finish from Koke’s clipped pass in the 33rd minute.
But the Greeks levelled through their only shot of the entire match, Anastasios Bakasetas’ penalty in the 57th minute after Inigo Martinez fouled Giorgios Masouras.
Spain loudly complained about the penalty call, which could not be reviewed as there is no VAR at this stage of qualifying.
Denmark beat Israel 2-0 in front of a rare crowd of several thousand fans in this pandemic-affected season.
Fans were allowed into the Bloomfield Stadium in Tel Aviv after Israel’s world-leading vaccine rollout.
Jonas Wind inspired Denmark to victory, with his flick setting up Martin Braithwaite for a clever chip for the opener. Wind volleyed the second after the break, his third goal for his country in his fifth appearance.
Denmark are the only one of the six teams in Group ‘F’ to have played at a World Cup since the 1990s.
Scotland twice came from behind to snatch a 2-2 draw with Austria in in rain-soaked Glasgow.
A spectacular overhead kick from John McGinn five minutes from time salvaged a potentially vital point for the Scots, who like Austria last qualified for the World Cup in 1998.
Published in Dawn, March 27th, 2021