LONDON: It was a record-breaking night for Harry Kane and Cristiano Ronaldo as qualifying for the European Championship in 2024 got underway on Thursday.
Kane became England’s all-time leading goalscorer as the Three Lions enjoyed a perfect start by winning 2-1 away to Italy. A first-half penalty lifted Kane to 54 goals for his country, one more than Wayne Rooney.
“Thanks to everyone who’s helped me get to this stage. It’s a great night. We haven’t won in Italy for so long so to score, and win this game, is just special,” said Kane.
Already the leading scorer in men’s international football, the 38-year-old Ronaldo now has more international appearances than any other male player after racking up No 197 in Portugal’s 4-0 win over Liechtenstein.
The former Real Madrid and Manchester United striker marked the occasion by converting a penalty and adding another second-half goal — a powerful free kick from the edge of the area — to move onto 120 in international matches.
Qualifying for Euro 2024, which will take place in Germany, started three months after the World Cup finished.
England’s meeting with Italy in Naples was a repeat of the Euro 2020 final won by the Azzurri at Wembley Stadium. The teams have met since then — twice, in fact, with Italy gaining a win and a draw in Nations League qualifying last year. This time, England held on.
In their first match since bowing out in agonising fashion to France in the World Cup quarter-finals, England were dominant in the first 45 minutes.
Declan Rice rifled home his third international goal on 13 minutes after Italy failed to clear a corner.
Another set-piece led to Kane’s record-breaking moment as Giovanni Di Lorenzo handled inside the area.
The Tottenham striker banished the memories of his missed penalty late on against France in Doha by sending Gianluigi Donnarumma the wrong way.
“It had to be a penalty, of course,” a smiling Kane said of his record goal.
Argentina-born forward Mateo Retegui, who has Italian citizenship through his maternal grandmother, pulled a goal back on his debut and England played with 10 men from the 80th after left back Luke Shaw collected two yellow cards in the space of 54 seconds.
Italy lost to England in a competitive match for the first time since a World Cup qualifier at Wembley back in 1977.
“We feel like we are one of the best teams in Europe,” added Kane. “Coming here and putting in a performance like that today shows we are ready for the next challenge.”
It was a disappointing way for the Azzurri to start their latest qualifying campaign for a major tournament, having failed to get into the last two World Cups.
“We might be starting with an uphill struggle this time,” Italy coach Roberto Mancini said, “but let’s hope we end it better.”
North Macedonia beat Malta 2-1 in the other match in Group ‘C’, which also contains Ukraine.
Ronaldo marked Roberto Martinez’s bow as Portugal boss with another historic night in Lisbon.
The striker, who was dropped from the Portuguese starting XI during the World Cup, set a new record for men’s international appearances by passing the previous mark of 196 caps held by Kuwait’s Bader Al-Mutawa.
Joao Cancelo fired home the opening goal after just eight minutes but it was not until Bernardo Silva doubled Portugal’s lead early in the second half that the floodgates opened.
Ronaldo was selected up front alongside Joao Felix and repaid the faith shown in him by Martinez, who left his role as Belgium after the tournament in Qatar.
“It’s a new cycle. It is very important that a player shows commitment and that he can use his experience,” said Martinez. “Cristiano has that: a lot of experience and a lot of commitment to the national team.”
Also in Group ‘J’, Rade Krunic scored twice as Bosnia and Herzegovina swept aside Iceland 3-0 but Slovakia, who have qualified for the last two Euros, were held 0-0 at home by Luxembourg.
There was a sense of poignancy when Denmark and Finland met for their opening Group ‘H’ qualifier at Parken Stadium in Copenhagen.
The last time the teams met was at Euro 2020 and it was the game — and same venue — when Denmark playmaker Christian Eriksen collapsed with cardiac arrest.
Nearly two years later, Denmark won 3-1 thanks to a hat-trick from striker Rasmus Hojlund in his first start for his country.
Elsewhere in the group, Dion Charles scored twice as Northern Ireland won 2-0 in San Marino, while Slovenia came from behind to win 2-1 away to Kazakhstan.
Published in Dawn, March 25th, 2023
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