GENEVA (AP) — Two games into qualifying and both France and England appear to be shoo-ins to reach neat year’s European Championship.
For Norway and Erling Haaland, however, it’s already looking like a bumpy road to Euro 2024 in Germany.
France and England delivered the standout displays over the past week in the return of international soccer following the World Cup in Qatar, opening group play with victories over their biggest rivals.
France and its new captain, Kylian Mbappé, swept aside the Netherlands 4-0 in Paris on Friday. England got off to a fast start by beating Italy 2-1 in a rematch of the Euro 2020 final, which the Italians won in London.
Both teams added second victories three days later.
Norway, considered one of Europe’s up-and-coming teams because of the presence of Haaland and Martin Odegaard, is still looking for a first win in qualifying.
Belgium also impressed twice on the road under new coach Domenico Tedesco, though its 3-2 victory in Germany was only a friendly because the Germans don’t have to qualify as hosts.
Scotland sprang the biggest surprise, beating 2008 and 2012 champion Spain 2-0, and joined Serbia, Switzerland and Portugal as group leaders with two wins and no goals conceded.
Haaland is probably the best current men’s player who never played at a World Cup.
The 22-year-old Manchester City scoring phenomenon also never played at a European Championship, and did not take part in Norway’s opening games in a group that also contains Spain.
Without their feared forward, nursing a groin injury sustained playing for his club, Norway lost in Spain 3-0 and then drew 1-1 at Georgia.
Failing to earn one of the 20 direct qualification places need not be an issue for Norway, which last played at a major tournament at Euro 2000 — one month before Haaland was born. Based on its Nations League standings, Norway is likely to enter the playoff route next March when the last three Euro 2024 places will be decided.
With two wins in a six-day spell next year, Norway will be in Germany, although as a low-seeded team with a tough draw.
Few would have predicted that Rasmus Højlund and Scott McTominay would be at the top of scoring chart alongside Cristiano Ronaldo.
Højlund had never started a game for Denmark before last week, and made only two appearances as a substitute in September before being left off the World Cup squad. McTominay had one goal in his five-year Scotland career, playing sometimes in central defense.
Højlund scored a hat trick in a 3-1 win over Finland and then gave Denmark a two-goal lead in Kazakhstan in a 3-2 loss.
McTominay suddenly became a predator in the penalty area with four goals within 60 minutes of play, twice late in a 3-0 win over Cyprus and two more to stun Spain.
Ronaldo started the international break with a men’s record 118 goals and ended it with 122, scoring two in each of Portugal’s routs of Luxembourg and Liechtenstein. He also now has a men’s record 198 national team appearances.
Harry Kane now stands alone as England’s all-time leading scorer with 55 goals. He scored in Italy and again in a 2-0 home win over Ukraine.
BACK IN FORM
Two strikers who were not fully fit in Qatar returned to form.
Belgium and Serbia both failed to advance out of the World Cup group stage, when more goals from Romelu Lukaku and Dušan Vlahović might have made the difference.
Three months later, each scored three times in qualifying and Lukaku showed why Chelsea could need to welcome him back next season from his loan at Inter Milan.
Lukaku got a hat trick in Belgium’s impressive 3-0 win at Sweden to open their group and added another in the friendly against Germany.
Vlahović’s goal sealed a 2-0 home win over Lithuania, then the Juventus forward struck twice late in a 2-0 win at Montenegro that lifted Serbia to the top of Group G.
A newcomer to watch is Zeki Amdouni, who scored in each of Switzerland’s wins over Belarus and Israel. The Basel forward has family ties to Turkey and Tunisia but turned down their advances to represent the country where he grew up.
The captain’s armband that caused a soccer diplomacy incident with World Cup host Qatar in November was back in Euro 2024 qualifying.
Kane and the Netherlands captain Virgil van Dijk both wore the anti-discrimination symbol — a heart with multi-colored, rainbow-like stripes — in recent days.
Although FIFA caved to Qatar’s wishes and pressured European federations to drop the armband at the World Cup, it is welcomed by UEFA in its competition.
Gio Wijnaldum previously wore it as the Dutch team’s captain at a Euro 2020 game in Hungary.
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