International football: 10 talking points from the latest round of games

Guardian sport on 11 September 2019

1) Kosovo hype is right on the night

Kosovo came into their match against England second in Group A and being talked up by everyone, Gareth Southgate included, as dangerous opponents. It didn’t feel that way by half-time with the hosts leading 5-1, but Kosovo came out not only fighting but reorganised, and gave England an actual scare. Valon Berisha was the stand-out, bagging a well-taken double, but forward Vedat Muriqi provided strength and awareness (not to mention the whipped left foot pass that split England’s defence for Berisha’s second) while Swansea’s Bersant Celina added guile. Perhaps the pivotal contribution, however, came from coach Bernard Challandes. His switch to 4-4-2 put England’s creaky centre-backs under more pressure than they had endured in the opening period, and it made the difference to a second half in which Kosovo lived up to their billing. Paul MacInnes

Match report: England 5-3 Kosovo

2) Spurs count cost of bruising clash in Los Angeles

There is no such thing as a friendly between Argentina and Chile. The two teams have developed a frenetic rivalry in recent years, sharing four red cards in the previous four meetings. Lionel Messi’s red card against Chile in July’s Copa América third-place play-off spared him from Friday’s encounter, where the reckless and dangerous challenges resumed from both sides. Argentina were particularly on the receiving end, with Juventus’s Paolo Dybala, Inter’s Lautaro Martínez and Tottenham’s Giovani Lo Celso all caught above the ankle with studs – the latter also sustaining a hip injury that will keep him sidelined for the next six weeks. For Spurs and other clubs, this fixture – played in front of a sparse crowd in Los Angeles – must have seemed wholly unnecessary and ill-thought out, with perhaps Alexis Sánchez completing 90 minutes the only positive. Michael Butler

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3) Northern Ireland show new dimension in defeat to Germany

Germany emerged from Belfast after their mini crisis, having lost at home to the Netherlands. Michael O’Neill and Joachim Löw can take a certain satisfaction, in their own different ways. Northern Ireland have long been noted as being a primarily physical threat, especially at home. However, as O’Neill stresses, they now have an extra dimension, in terms of athleticism and confidence on the ball, as illustrated by George Saville and Jamal Lewis. In goal too, Bailey Peacock Farrell looked impressive, as Germany fashioned chances as well as goals from Marcel Halstenberg and Serge Gnabry. Löw was pleased with the result if not altogether the performance. His instincts to stick with new players, such as Halstenberg, was vindicated. Julian Taylor

Match report: Northern Ireland 0-2 Germany

4) Refereeing calamities hand Italy easy ride

If you are Italian, Group J makes for pretty reading. Six wins out of six, and six points clear at the top, meaning they are potentially only one more win away from qualification for Euro 2020. While progress is being made, this week’s narrow away wins only came after two shocking refereeing decisions. With the score at 1-1, Armenia’s Aleksandr Karapetyan was sent off for an elbow that never was, while Finland – also drawing 1-1 with 10 minutes left – were extremely unlucky to be penalised by the Scottish referee Bobby Madden for a handball inside the box. Roberto Mancini deserves some praise, but optimism must be tempered: only Bosnia and Herzegovina from Group J are ranked inside Fifa’s top 50. Italy are still a long way off being considered anything other than dark horses for next year’s tournament. MB

Euro 2020 roundup: Italy beat Finland while Norway draw in Sweden

Victory in Finland gave Italy yet more cause for celebration.
Victory in Finland gave Italy yet more cause for celebration. Photograph: Mauri Ratilainen/EPA

5) Does Giggs know his best Wales team?

One of the criticisms levelled at Ryan Giggs is that he still does not know his best starting XI. Giggs was appointed Wales manager in January last year and has used 43 players across 15 matches. His argument would be that injuries and a lack of match fitness have contributed heavily. Whether he has a case or not, with two critical qualifiers coming up, Giggs badly needs to get his team selection and formation right. Friday’s unconvincing 2-1 win over Azerbaijan strengthened the calls for another midfielder to be included at the expense of a makeshift striker/false nine. Aaron Ramsey’s possible return from injury could solve that problem. A 4-3-3 formation featuring Gareth Bale through the middle, with Dan James and Harry Wilson either side, would give Wales a threat on the counterattack and more control in the centre of the pitch. Stuart James

Match report: Wales 1-0 Belarus
Match report: Wales 2-1 Azerbaijan

6) Sierra Leone’s World Cup heartbreak spills into violence

The fallout from Umaru Bangura’s missed penalty in injury-time of Sierra Leone’s World Cup qualifying defeat to Liberia spilled over into violence after the FC Zurich midfielder’s home was pelted with stones by angry fans. “It was one of the worst days of my life,” Bangura told the BBC while holed up in his bedroom. “I can’t even go outside because I didn’t expect this kind of hostility towards me.” There were also reports that four Red Cross staff were injured after coming under attack following the final whistle in Freetown as they attempted to protect Bangura after his penalty was saved by the 18-year-old Liberian goalkeeper Ashley Williams. “Hooliganism is becoming unprecedented,” said the sports minister, Ibrahim Nyelenkeh. “I think measures should be put in place to combat it.” Ed Aarons

7) Hampden could be grim backdrop for San Marino’s visit

It felt impossible not to spurt with laughter as Hampden Park’s Tannoy announcer used full-time of the mauling by Belgium to urge supporters to buy tickets for the visit of San Marino. On a Sunday evening in October, just days after facing Russia in Moscow, the team ranked 211th and bottom of the Fifa rankings come to town. As things stand, only San Marino keep Scotland from the foot of Group I. The Scottish FA’s desire to buy Hampden from Queen’s Park always looked questionable. When far from full, the stadium lacks any form of atmosphere. Scotland has alternative grounds to fit the requirements of the national side and showpiece domestic matches. When asked how Hampden could be transformed into an imposing venue the Scottish FA’s chief executive offered the hopeful solution of winning matches. With the opposite scenario continuing to play out, a soulless, sparse backdrop to San Marino’s visit will do nobody any favours. Ewan Murray

Match report: Scotland 0-4 Belgium

The empty Hampden stands behind John McGinn do Scotland few favours.
The empty Hampden stands behind John McGinn do Scotland few favours. Photograph: Craig Galloway/ProSports/Shutterstock

8) Berahino’s penalty woe costs Burundi dear

Saido Berahino has made a decent start to life in Belgium having found the net three times in his first four appearances for Zulte Waregem but his struggles for Burundi continued this week after an indifferent Africa Cup of Nations campaign. Having been eliminated in the group stages without scoring a goal, the Swallows were dumped out of World Cup qualifying by neighbours Tanzania after failing to convert a single penalty in the shootout after two 1-1 draws. Berahino was one of the culprits, meaning he has not scored a penalty in his last five attempts – a run that stretches back to May 2015 against Chelsea for West Brom. EA

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9) McCarthy given selection headache for vital game

Georgia did the Republic of Ireland a favour in the Euro 2016 qualifiers by beating Scotland; they helped the Irish again by holding Denmark to a draw. To take advantage of that unexpected boon, Mick McCarthy’s men need to win in Tbilisi next month. Conor Hourihane scored the winner when the sides met in Dublin earlier in the campaign but this time the Aston Villa midfielder may be asked to play at left-back owing to Enda Stevens’s suspension and fitness doubts over Matt Doherty. Hourihane did a reasonable job in that unfamiliar role in Tuesday’s win over Bulgaria, while Josh Cullen or Jack Bryne both made good cases for replacing him (and/or Glenn Whelan) in midfield, depending on how bold McCarthy wants to be. Paul Doyle

Match report: Republic of Ireland 3-1 Bulgaria

10) Silva still waiting for worthy praise

It seems ridiculous that after scoring four goals for Portugal against Lithuania, this talking point would be about anything other than Cristiano Ronaldo. But while Ronaldo finishes the moves, it is Bernardo Silva who continues to be the beating heart of this team, instrumental in Portugal’s impressive 4-2 win over Serbia on Saturday with a goal and an assist, while laying on two more goals for Ronaldo in the 5-1 win in Vilnius. Silva has had a remarkable year, winning the player of the tournament award in a victorious Nations League campaign, as well as a domestic treble with Manchester City, and there was bemusement when he wasn’t nominated as one of 10 players for Fifa’s The Best award. The 26-year-old has long lost his “under-rated” tag, but still doesn’t seem to be widely regarded for what he is: one of the best players in the world. MB

Euro 2020 qualifying tables: check out the standings here

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