A busy night of international action on Saturday threw up more storylines involving some of Europe’s World Cup hopefuls
Saturday night’s World Cup Qualifying action offered a mixed bag for some of the favoured European nations.
But while France and Portugal secured three points en route to Russia, Belgium scrambled for a point against Greece – while Holland were beaten 2-0 in Sofia by Bulgaria.
Here are five things we learned from the night’s action…
1. Portugal have a poacher
Not since the departure from the international stage of Pauleta have Portugal been able to employ the services of a pure No.9 worthy of the title.
Cristiano Ronaldo has borne the brunt of the goalscoring burden for much of that time – and the Real Madrid superstar has coped remarkably.
Now, as the Seleccao edge closer to the day when the captain’s international career comes to an end, they now, finally, look to have unearthed their next top-level goalscorer.
Andre Silva has taken to first-team life at Porto with assurance this season, helping himself to 20 goals in 37 games. And it’s been a similar story for his country, with the 21-year-old now having bagged five goals in six games for his country.
Standing 6ft 1in, his hold up play is good, he works well with Ronaldo and, crucially, knows how to find space in the penalty area.
That’s what he did for his goal, the opener at the Estadio Da Luz, allowing him to tap in Fabio Coentrao’s cross at the far post.
It bodes well for Portugal’s future, post-Cristiano.
2. Belgium’s under-achievers miss Premier League stars
At the last two major tournaments, Belgium have been tipped to shine. Both times, they largely flattered to deceive before departing; with a whimper against Argentina in 2014, and throwing it away against an organised Wales last summer.
Under Bode Martinez they were shown up in an early-season friendly by France, before responding with thrashings of Gibraltar and Estonia.
But against a resolute Greece, the Red Devils struggled for fluency with their new 3-5-2 formation, couldn’t get Romelu Lukaku nor Napoli hitman Dries Mertens in the positions they like, and generally lacked a little ingenuity.
A major reason for that was the absence of Manchester City’s Kevin de Bruyne and Chelsea star Eden Hazard. That pair add a little extra creativity and edge to the Belgium attack, and without them, they struggled against the visitors’ organisation – even when the latter fell to 10 men.
Fortunately, a moment of magic from Lukaku saved the day late on, his excellent effort earning a point on a frustrating night in Brussels.
3. Blind hangs De Ligt out to dry
After Holland’s failure to qualify for Euro 2016, it was a surprise that Danny Blind remained in place.
Granted, he had only taken over late during that campaign from Guus Hiddink; thus, mitigating circumstances.
But the Ajax legend is again overseeing what, for many Dutch fans, is another nightmare.
Holland were outplayed in Bulgaria, and the talent drain – where are the new Robin ban Persie’s and Arjen Robben’s? – is showing. There are old stagers past their prime, young, raw prospects – but few top-level players in their prime at available at present.
However Blind isn’t helping himself. And his latest ‘out-there’ decision, to hand 17-year-old defender Matthijs de Ligt an international debut after just SEVEN Eredivisie games for Ajax counting for only 268 minutes(!) – backfired spectacularly.
De Ligt, unfortunately, looked out of his depth and after being given the runaround by two-goal Spas Delev was hooked at half-time. Hopefully, the beginning isn’t also the end of De Ligt’s Oranje career.
The blame should fall on Blind however, thrusting him into the spotlight much too soon, and in a side badly lacking basic defensive organisation.
4. Les Bleus lacklustre but Deschamps introduces his starlets
There have been a number of teams and selections doing the rounds in recent days looking at France’s immense youth talent, and wondering if a glorious return to the top of the world game is laid out for Les Bleus.
A lacklustre display in Luxembourg – where Olivier Giroud score twice and Antoine Griezmann netted a penalty in a 3-1 win – will no doubt have seen Didier Deschamps bring his charges back down to Earth.
Deschamps, to his credit, mixed those players who had done so well at the Euros last summer, with some new blood, and is looking at the emerging talent and trying to pick how to let them emerge best. Djibril Sidibe and Bernard Mendy, the much-admired Monaco fullbacks both started, and both showed what threats they can be on the offensive, each assisting a goal for Olivier Giroud.
Further forward, with Paul Pogba’s creation missing, Borussia Dortmund phenom Ousmane Dembele was handed a start, but endured the kind of difficult night he hasn’t been too used to in his fledgling career. Nonetheless, one thing the 19-year-old most definitely is, is game. And on a tricky evening, he kept battling to show his quality.
Late on, Kylian Mbappe, 18, stepped from the bench for his debut. Within a minute, he almost had his maiden goal, denied only by a fine save. Adrien Rabiot would also be introduced as a late sub.
The talent coming through looks phenomenal. It’s now a question of harnessing and introducing it in the best way possible.
5. The Fors is with Sweden
Sweden were given a big helping hand by the Belarus keeper at Solna’s appropriately-named Friends Arena, but in the PZ era (post-Zlatan), they’re finding themselves a new talisman.Emil Forsberg has enjoyed a remarkable debut season in the Bundesliga with RB Leipzig, and those performances are now registering on the international stage, where he has inherited Ibrahimovic’s No.10 shirt.
The talented schemer scored twice in Sweden’s 4-0 victory, which emboldens their hopes for a play-off spot (more so after Holland’s latest defeat).
Forsberg, the ex-Malmo playmaker being linked with the likes of Liverpool and Bayern, is set to play a major part; their June qualifier against France promises fireworks.