Cometh the hour, cometh the man is an expression that perfectly describes what happened on Saturday in Israel. With Wales taking on group leaders Israel in a must win game, the welsh fans were looking to one man in particular to be their inspiration. Gareth Bale did not fail to disappoint and when his country needed him the most he was there to provide the goals and the gloss on a well fought 3-0 victory over their group rivals. The Real Madrid star who has had a problematic season so far in Spain with many of the Real fans turning on him was a constant threat from the first whistle to the last. He provided the set up for Aaron Ramsey to head Wales into the lead before adding a stunning brace himself to wrap up the points. His first was a perfectly taken free kick, curled over the wall into the corner leaving the goalkeeper stranded. The second came thirteen minutes from the end; a drilled shot from Aaron Ramsey’s pass was enough to give Wales the win and have them leapfrog Israel into top spot in the group. Israel and Belgium do have a game in hand to play against each other which could see Wales drop back down to second before their crunch game with Belgium in Cardiff in June.
Expectations were high for Scotland going into Sunday’s must win game against Gibraltar at Hampden. Having warmed up with a narrow win over Northern Ireland four days earlier, Scotland fans were expecting a goal rout against the tiny peninsula state. The visitors were playing only their tenth international since being granted UEFA membership in 2013 and had until Sunday failed to record a competitive goal or a win. So when Luke Casciaro collected a pass from Aaron Payas on the twentieth minute of the match before coolly slotting it under David Marshall in the Scotland goal, dreams of an upset were very much on the cards. Scotland looked rattled having taken the lead only moments earlier through a penalty from Shaun Maloney but soon found the composure needed to get back on track. Sunderland striker Steven Fletcher added Scotland’s second of the day with a glancing header just before the half hour mark before Maloney added a third with his second penalty of the day. Steven Naismith put Scotland into a commanding position with a four goal six minutes before the interval. The second half started much as the first had ended with Scotland in control and Fletcher in particular looking hungry for more goals. He would add a brace to complete his hat trick and earn himself a place in history as the first Scotsman to score three goals in an international fixture since Colin Stein did it in 1969. The win leaves Scotland still in contention in 3rd place in the group of death which also included World Champions Germany, Poland and the Republic of Ireland.
Northern Ireland meanwhile put their 1-0 friendly defeat to Scotland behind them when they took on Finland at Windsor Park on Sunday. Amidst scenes of protests outside the ground from religious groups who were calling on the IFA to boycott the game as it was played on a Sunday, Northern Ireland surged out of the blocks and into an early lead only to see the goal strangely ruled out. But the home support didn’t have to wait long before Kyle Lafferty drilled home his twelfth international goal after some good work from Niall McGinn who headed the ball towards the striker who sweetly volleyed home. The former Burnley and Rangers front man added a second five minutes later with a fine header from a Conor McLaughlin cross. Finland did manage to pull one back late in the game but Michael O’Neill’s men held on for another valuable three points. The win leaves them in second spot, a point behind Romania who they face next in June. With Greece already out of the reckoning and Finland struggling to find a winning formula, it looks to be a three way race between Romania, Northern Ireland and Hungary for the two automatic spots. A win against Romania followed by three points against the Faroe Islands could see Northern Ireland clinch its place at the European Championships for the first time in their history.
Harry Kane’s dream season continued with his debut appearance for England against a very poor Lithuania. In typical Kane style, he marked his first England cap with his first England goal only two minutes after coming on as a substitute. The Tottenham striker latched on to Raheem Sterling’s cross to head in at the back post and seal England’s four nil victory. Goals from Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Sterling handed England all three points and kept their quest for qualification on track. Sitting top of the group after five matches with a six point lead England will progress if they win their next two games against second placed Slovenia and whipping boys San Marino. Few would bet on England progressing especially given the depth of talent available to manager Roy Hodgson. Already blessed with several options upfront, Kane’s addition and strong showing on his debut including not only his goal but some strong link up play will be sure to give Hodgson some food for thought.
With five games remaining, all four home nations look to be in good positions to qualify for Euro 2016 set to take place in France. With two automatic places in each group and the best third place team qualifying, the home nations all know that this is their best chance of all reaching the tournament. They will want to avoid the playoffs considering who may be involved at this stage in the game. Holland, Belgium, Ukraine, Russia and Switzerland all occupy third spots in their respective groups and are struggling for consistent form. If that continues the playoffs could be one of the most hotly contested of all time. Hopefully be then all of the Home nations have already sealed their places and will be focusing on the challenges that lie ahead of them in France.
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