LONDON: The Netherlands will be back at the World Cup after an eight-year gap, forcing Norway star Erling Haaland to wait until at least 2026 to make his debut on the biggest stage.
The Dutch did just enough Tuesday with late goals in a 2-0 win in Rotterdam that eliminated the Norwegians who were missing Haaland, their injured 21-year-old forward.
Turkey overtook Norway into second place in Group ‘G’, winning 2-1 in Montenegro to enter the European playoffs in March.
Ukraine also won away, 2-0 at Bosnia-Herzegovina thanks to Oleksandr Zinchenko and Artem Dovbyk’s second-half efforts, to join Turkey as unseeded teams who will be on the road again in the playoffs semi-finals.
The unbeaten Ukrainians, who drew six of their eight Group ‘D’ games, rose into second place above Finland, who were eliminated by losing 2-0 at home to table-topping France.
Kylian Mbappe set up Karim Benzema to score in the 66th before getting the second himself 10 minutes later after a speedy solo run down the left flank.
Wales and the Czech Republic started their Group ‘E’ games on Tuesday knowing both were heading to the playoffs, with leaders Belgium already having claimed the direct qualification spot to the finals tournament in Qatar.
Wales ensured they will be seeded in the playoffs by drawing 1-1 with the top-ranked Belgians in Cardiff to finish runners-up in the group.
The Czechs, who beat visiting Estonia 2-0, placed third in the group and take one of the two playoffs entries for teams that won a Nations League group last year.
The Netherlands failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup despite being the beaten finalists in 2010 and reaching the semi-finals four years later under then-coach Louis van Gaal.
Now back in charge aged 70 and nursing a newly injured hip that kept him from the dugout, Van Gaal oversaw Tuesday’s win from a seat high up in the stands of the empty stadium in Rotterdam.
Entering the final 10 minutes, a Norway goal could have eliminated the Dutch completely. The tension was banished by Tottenham winger Steven Bergwijn smashing Arnaut Danjuma’s cross into the top corner at De Kuip.
Barcelona forward Memphis Depay sealed the win in stoppage time by finishing off a breakaway move through an exposed Norway defense.
Van Gaals team finished two points ahead of Turkey after the tightest three-way contest in the 10 European qualifying groups.
The victory was played behind closed doors after a partial lockdown was re-introduced last week due to an increase in cases of Covid-19.
“Of course there are many things that could be improved, but the result was the most important. We are going to Qatar,” Oranje captain Virgil van Dijk told broadcasters NOS. “I was very sorry that the national coach was there from a distance and the fans were not there at all. We’re going to celebrate well inside [the stadium]. I can’t wait for the World Cup.”
In Podgorica, Montenegro forward Fatos Beqiraj opened the scoring after just four minutes to put Turkey in danger of missing out on a top-two finish.
The visitors responded on 22 minutes as Galatasary attacker Kerem Akturkoglu finished acrobatically at the back post before Feyenoord youngster Orkun Kokcu added a second to secure a 2-1 win.
“There are very tough opponents in the play-offs,” Turkey’s Abdulkadir Omur said after assisting Akturkoglu’s equaliser. “We want to give the best fight there and go to the World Cup. I am very happy and proud in this shirt, I do everything I can.”
Turkey, Ukraine, Wales and the Czech Republic completed the lineup of 12 nations that will compete for three tickets to Qatar in a tense six-day span in March.They will go into three knockout brackets of four teams each when FIFA makes the draw on Nov 26 in Zurich.
Wales are the only one of those playing on Tuesday to be among the six seeded teams who will play at home in the single-leg playoff semi-finals on March 24-25. The other seeded teams are Italy, Portugal, Russia, Scotland and Sweden.
The unseeded teams who will play away from home first are the Czechs, North Macedonia, Poland, Turkey, Ukraine and Austria, the other team claiming their place via the Nations League.
North Macedonia are the only European team left in contention that have never played at a World Cup finals tournament. Wales have not been since 1958, which was their only appearance.
The three playoff finals will be played on March 28 or 29. Home advantage for those single-game finals in each bracket will also be drawn by FIFA later this month.
FIFA will make the finals tournament draw on April 1 in Doha. The 10 European qualifiers so far in the 32-team lineup are Belgium, France, England, Spain, Denmark, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Croatia and Serbia.
Published in Dawn, November 18th, 2021