PARIS: Italy set an international record of 36 games unbeaten on Sunday as Germany and Spain returned to the top of their World Cup qualifying groups.
Though European champions Italy were held 0-0 at Switzerland, Germany and Spain were joined by England and Poland in routing low-ranked opponents.
Top-ranked Belgium were lifted by Romelu Lukaku celebrating his 100th international appearance by scoring his 67th goal to ease past the Czech Republic 3-0.
It all gave an air of normalcy to the World Cup qualifying picture in Europe amid the chaos Sunday in South America. It’s signature Brazil-Argentina game was suspended after seven minutes in a dispute over Argentina players following Covid-19 protocols.
Brazil also lost their share of the men’s world record they held jointly with Spain and Italy at 35 games unbeaten. Brazil’s run in 1993-96 included a World Cup title, Spain’s in 2007-09 spanned a European title and Italys date’s to September 2018.
A rare failure for Italy to score was compounded by penalty specialist Jorginho failing from the spot again in the 53rd minute. He missed in the shootout at the Euro 2020 final against England.
The newly-crowned UEFA men’s player of the year’s signature trick of a slow run and jump did not deceive Swiss goalkeeper Yann Sommer, who quickly stepped to his right then dived to his left to save.
“The ball didn’t want to go into the goal,” Italian coach Roberto Mancini told RAI. “We had too many chances today not to win the match... We have to be more clinical and more precise.”
The Azzurri remain top of Group ‘C’ with 11 points from five games, four points above Switzerland who have two games in hand. Bulgaria beat Lithuania 1-0 earlier Sunday and trail Italy by six points.
Italy are bidding to banish the memories of their shock failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. The group winners automatically reach next year’s finals in Qatar, with the runners-up heading into the play-offs.
The Germans brushed off the cobwebs of their underwhelming 2-0 win over Liechtenstein in Hansi Flick’s first match in charge by thrashing previous leaders Armenia to go top of Group ‘J’.
Bayern Munich winger Serge Gnabry scored twice in the first 15 minutes. Timo Werner set up Marco Reus, who was recalled by Flick, to put the result beyond doubt before netting himself to complete a dominant opening 45 minutes.
The home crowd in Stuttgart were given a fifth goal to cheer by Jonas Hofmann early in the second period, before the four-time world champions added further gloss in added time through 19-year-old debutant Karim Adeyemi.
They now lead Armenia by two points, with Romania a point further back after beating Liechtenstein 2-0. The standings would have been even tighter but North Macedonia wasted a two-goal lead late in the game at Iceland who hit back for a 2-2 draw.
Spain, who are in danger of not qualifying automatically, thrashed Georgia 4-0 in Badajoz. First-half goals from Jose Gaya, Carlos Soler and Ferran Torres ensured they bounced back from their loss to Sweden with a win.
Pablo Sarabia also netted after half-time, but although the 2010 World Cup winners move top of Group ‘B’, they are only one point ahead of Sweden who have two games in hand. Third-placed Kosovo are another five points back after scoring in stoppage-time to draw 1-1 with Greece.
ENGLAND CRUISE AT WEMBLEY
A much-changed England laboured for long periods before seeing off Andorra 4-0 in their first match at Wembley since their Euro 2020 final defeat by Italy on penalties.
Jesse Lingard, who missed out on Gareth Southgate’s Euro squad, put the hosts ahead in the 18th minute, but a second goal did not arrive until substitute Harry Kane’s penalty 18 minutes from time.
England, for whom Southgate made 11 changes, did enjoy a late goal spree as Lingard netted a second and Bukayo Saka marked his birthday by finding the net.
That goal brought loud cheers from the crowd at Wembley — where Saka missed the decisive penalty in the shootout against the Italians in July.
“He [Saka] got a fabulous reception, before and during the game,” Southgate told ITV. “You can see how popular he is with the rest of the team as well.”
England have won all five of their matches in Group ‘I’ and visit Poland, who they lead by five points, on Wednesday.
Robert Lewandowski scored twice and Adam Buksa grabbed a hat-trick as the second-placed Poles hammered San Marino 7-1. Albania closed to within a point of Poland by beating Hungary 1-0.
Belgium and Czech Republic were both eliminated in the Euro 2020 quarterfinals though looked in a separate class on Sunday.
Lukaku finished with a smart, powerful shot in the eighth minute, another established star Eden Hazard added to it in the 41st and emerging prospect Alexis Saelemaekers of AC Milan got a third in the 65th as Roberto Martinez’s Belgium stretched six points clear of the Czechs at the top of Group ‘E’.
Wales trail the Czechs by one point with two games in hand, after Gareth Bale scored a hat-trick, including an injury-time winner, in a dramatic 3-2 success over Belarus in Kazan.
Published in Dawn, September 7th, 2021