Spain 8 - 0 Liechtenstein
In a dominant second half performance, Spain swept aside Liechtenstein in a goal bonanza, extending their impressive undefeated World Cup Qualifying streak to a scarcely believable record.
It’s been a *very* long time since Spain last lost a World Cup qualifier… pic.twitter.com/XvPtKxpbfq— Bleacher Report UK (@br_uk) September 5, 2016
It all began rather slowly, with Spain roughly lining up in a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1, which quickly morphed into a weird 2-1-5-1/2-6-1/3-6-1 formation.
Spain’s ultra-attacking set-up was aided by Liechtenstein’s willingness to sit into a low block and commit few men forward, thus posing no real threat to Spain’s incredibly high defensive line. The timid counter-attacking structure that developed from this was squashed by Spain’s organized and ruthless counterpress, making the game a one-sided affair for the full ninety minutes.
Such dominance allowed Lopetegui to use both Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique as auxiliary central defensive midfielders, as both players (especially the former) stepped up into the final reaches of the middle third and controlled the initial possession phase.
With both Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto pushing up as makeshift wingers, Sergio Busquets often dropped in between Ramos and Pique when the ball was near Lichtenstein’s box to provide his side with a necessary dose of defensive stability. But such was Spain’s dominance in possession, that he often found time to push up and spray piercing balls all across the pitch.
But despite all of this dominance, Lopetegui’s side lacked any real edge in attack. Far too often the final ball was lacking and Spain often looked bereft of invention.
Still, Spain’s quality was too good to be ignored, as they got a goal virtue of a smart set-piece from Koke, which led to a glancing header from Diego Costa in the 10th minute.
The result stood at 1-0 till the half, where Lopetegui smartly analyzed his side’s flaws and made the necessary adjustments; bringing on Nolito for Thiago and changing his side’s formation to a more aggressive 3-3-3-1 (Sergio Roberto shifted into midfield).
The results were immediate in the second period of play, as Nolito won the ball back only yards in front of Liechtenstein’s box, before nutmegging a defender to brilliantly assist Sergi Roberto in the 55th minute.
With the floodgates opened, Spain proceeded to bag three more goals, courtesy of David Silva, Vitolo, and Diego Costa, before Alvaro Morata came on in the 70th minute.
Marco Asensio soon followed nine minutes later, before playing an impressive hand in Alvaro Morata’s slick goal (a fake shot and a finish inside the near post with his left foot) by connecting brilliantly with his teammates to advance Spain up the pitch.
Six goals to the good and all but home, Spain could have been forgiven for taking their foot off the pedal. Instead, they kept pushing, as Morata banged in another goal off the goalkeeper’s hands in the 86th minute, before David Silva finally scored the last strike of the evening with a low drive into the net in injury time.
All in all, it was an impressive showing from all of the players involved, but it was an expected victory against a very weak team. Draw too many conclusions from this match at your own peril.
Wales 4 - 0 Moldova
Gareth Bale and Wales enjoyed a straightforward start to their 2018 World Cup qualifying group with a 4-0 victory over Moldova in Cardiff on Monday.
Bale continued his impressive recent form, setting up Sam Vokes for the opener, before rounding off the victory with Wales’ third and fourth goals.
It was a quiet start to the game, but in the closing stages of the first half, Wales put themselves in a commanding position.
After enjoying a long spell of dominance, Wales took the initiative when Bale cut in onto his left foot from the right wing and whipped a vicious cross towards the far post, which Vokes headed powerfully beyond goalkeeper Ilie Cebanu.
Wales doubled their lead just before half time - midfielder Joe Allen fired a volley from just inside the Moldovan box low and hard, which Cebanu could not get down to quick enough after parrying the initial in-swinging corner.
Wales sought to add to their tally immediately after the restart. Joe Allen nearly released Bale just five minutes in, but Allen’s pass skidded favorably off the wet turf for the on-rushing Cebanu.
However, just moments later, Bale capitalized on a terrible error by Ion Jardan. The right back passed blindly straight to Bale, who was positioned between the two Moldovan central defenders and dinked a delicate shot past Cebanu.
Bale rounded off the 4-0 victory when he was felled in the box in stoppage time. With a stuttered run up, the Real Madrid man fired low underneath the goalkeeper with the final kick of the game.
With these two goals Bale is now four goals behind Wales' top international goal scorer Ian Rush, who has scored 28 goals in Wales’ colors.
Croatia 1 - 1 Turkey
Growing up in Canada and playing for local teams in front of half-a-dozen fans on the weekly, this match between Croatia and Turkey really hit home - if not for the striking similarities between Luka Modric's raw talent and mine own, then for the entirely empty stadium that observed tonight's world cup qualifier.
It's no secret that the atmosphere surrounding Croatian football is grim (more on that here), and given the raucous - literally and symbolically - that Croatian fans spewed during the Euros, it was decided that tonight's qualifier would be played behind closed doors, and it's a bit of a shame that there is so much corruption hovering around such a talented generation.
The match itself was a drab. Certainly the lack of atmosphere didn't help, but neither did the fact that the outing unfortunately had an odd resemblance to Croatia's exit in the Euros against Portugal. Ante Cacic's men seemed in control, but weren't clinical, and at any given time despite looking far superior, looked like they might concede a freak goal.
... Against a Turkish side that hasn't improved one bit since the Euros, at that.
In the first half, Perisic, Pjaca, and Mandzukic all hit the crossbar, while Luka Modric came close to a goal after intercepting a pass near the center circle, dribbling up to the top of the box, and unleashing a curling side footer which whiskered past the near post.
Modric, to be sure, had a tremendous influence on this match. On one occasion, with five defenders in front of him, he danced past one before getting clipped by another - earning his team a penalty kick which Ivan Rakitic converted. Just seconds before half-time, he also committed a reckless challenge which gave the Turks a free-kick. The set-piece eventually resulted in a goal for Hakan Calhanoglu after a freak deflection ricocheted off the wall and into the back of the net.
In hindsight, that moment could have cost Croatia two crucial points amid a very difficult qualifying group which consists of Iceland and Ukraine. But Modric, who was also captaining his side now that Darijo Srna has retired from international football, was tremendous throughout despite the clumsy foul. Like the Euros, Luka played in a deeper role while letting Rakitic and Pjaca string things up front. His positioning was very good, and he had several ball-winning challenges in the midfield while occasionally venturing forward in pragmatic fashion. In those journeys up front, Luka always created danger by slipping in through-balls or slinging a shot.
And in case you're wondering, Mateo Kovacic did not feature in tonight's match, though I do think he would have helped had he come on for Pjaca or Rakitic.