Football fans rarely welcome an international break with open arms, but a seismic showdown between Germany and the Netherlands on the road to Euro 2020 qualifying was at least enough to whet the appetite for the first interruption to the 2019/20 domestic season.
There were big wins for Austria, Denmark, Bosnia, Belgium and Croatia.
Here’s our round-up of the major talking points from the first round of games, headlined by that mouthwatering match-up.
LIVING UP TO THE BILLING
Some special players on show and we got a special game to match, as well as some special goals. Big games between big sides don’t always deliver the big payoff they threaten, but this encounter in Hamburg was a humdinger.
A dynamic young Dutch squad continues to grow under Ronald Koeman. The 56-year-old was an attack-minded centre-half with a devastating goalscoring knack and he is beginning to stamp his mark on this side, one that is very much on the rise after a near decade in the doldrums.
Gini Wijnaldum put in a magical performance, with first an impish and intuitive touch to set up debutant Donyell Malen, 20, for a dream goal to make it 3-2. He then nailed Germany’s coffin shut when he calmly side-footed home in stoppage time for Memphis Depay’s devilish delivery.
Besides Malen it was a showcase for the bright young Oranje stars, with Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong, 22, imperious, notching two key passes while his intricate first touch and finish to bring the visitors level at 1-1 was incredible.
Matthijs de Ligt, meanwhile, is making light work of the international stage, jointly leading the side with three aerials won and generally making his presence felt in both boxes. He gave away the penalty that Toni Kroos coolly despatched but its award was cruel in the extreme on the oblivious 20-year-old. Depay was also deadly as a creative force, making four key passes, one of which teed up Wijnaldum.
It was sweet revenge for the Dutch who had been beaten 3-2 when the two sides met in Amsterdam March. Nico Schulz had scored a 90th-minute winner on that occasion but Koeman’s side returned the favour and got their qualification campaign back on track in the process.
Big games don’t always deliver. This one did. And so too is this current crop of rich Dutch talent.
DRAGONS FAILING TO FIRE
Wales got their campaign back on track following two demoralising defeats to Hungary and Croatia, but fans will have woken with a bittersweet taste in their mouths on Saturday morning.
On the one hand they plodded to a one-goal win over one of the worst teams in Europe, who dwell 85 places below them. Then again, two cataclysmic errors, first from Neil Taylor and then Wayne Hennessey, contributed to a needlessly tense finale against Azerbaijan after the hosts had dominated.
Wales have an exciting new young generation emerging and they impressed. Ethan Ampadu, 20, looks at home in the Welsh midfield while Daniel James, 21, was a threat on either flank. Swansea centre-back Joe Rodon, 21, looked rock solid on his international debut. He and Chris Mepham, also 21, look like they could potentially forge a partnership for the foreseeable future.
Most worrisome though is how coach Ryan Giggs does not seem to have much of a strategy for how he wants his team to play. It all began brightly. A 6-0 thrashing of China was the nation’s biggest victory in 22 years, while September 2018’s 4-1 thrashing of the Republic of Ireland in the Nations League saw the Dragons seemingly light the blue touch paper on a fiery new era led by new stars who could burn bright for a long time in David Brooks and Ampadu. And yet, since then the revolution has stalled. Wales have returned six defeats in their last 10 games and the pressure is mounting.
Giggs is presiding over arguably the most talented squad Wales have ever had, but heads are being shook as to why he is not getting the best out of them. Fail to qualify for Euro 2020 and his head could be rolling.
CROATIA IN COMMAND
Elsewhere in Group E, 2018 World Cup finalists Croatia put down a marker for top spot contention with a commanding performance as Slovakia were put to the sword 4-0. Zlatko Dalic’s side have been efficient rather than electrifying during their campaign so far. They laboured to a 2-1 opening day victory over Azerbaijan, which required a late Andrej Kramaric winner. Then they slipped to a 2-1 defeat against Hungary and won by the same scoreline at home to Wales.
But they were ruthless on Friday, tearing the hosts apart in Trnava with four different goalscorers finding the net. It made a mockery of the fact both sides started the day on six points. Now they’re joint top with Hungary and will be favourites to press home their advantage and take top spot in the second half of the campaign.
RED DEVILS LOOK RAVISHING
Another team to find the net four times on Friday were the team at top spot in world football, Belgium. Their meeting with the team at the complete opposite of the spectrum – San Marino are 211th – ended as presumed, in easy victory.
So fans of the Rode Duivels (Red Devils) nor Roberto Martinez will be getting too excited by a routine 4-0 thrashing. But a squad that has really come into its own over the last three years is purring perfectly. A commanding start to qualifying sees them sit top of Group I with an imperious 15 points – Spain and Italy are the only other teams with a 100 per cent start.
Only the Azzurri have scored more goals (16) than Belgium’s 15, at a rate of three per game. And only the Ukraine and England can match their defensive record of just one goal conceded, though both have played less games than Belgium’s five. The Red Devils look ravishing.
Connor Roberts feels Wales must find their form from a year ago to qualify for Euro 2020.
Wales kept in the hunt for a finals place next summer with a 2-1 home victory over Azerbaijan on Friday night.
But it was another scratchy performance from Ryan Giggs’ side and victory against opponents ranked 109 in the world – 85 places below Wales – was again down to their talismanic captain Gareth Bale.
The Real Madrid forward headed home six minutes from time to move Wales above Slovakia into third place and to within three points of joint Group E leaders Croatia and Hungary.
Next month’s double-header against Slovakia and Croatia now looks pivotal and Swansea full-back Roberts said: “They’re a brilliant team with world-class players.
“If we want to compete with them and get what we want, we have to play well.
“We have to play better than this, probably better than we have for a year or so. We have to get back to that.
“The boys have to go back to their clubs after Monday (when Wales meet Belarus in a friendly), play games and get good form.
“Then when we meet up again we can hopefully do the business.”
Giggs was appointed manager in January 2018, just 18 months after his predecessor Chris Coleman had guided Wales to the semi-finals of Euro 2016.
His reign’s high point came last September with an exhilarating 4-1 Nations League victory over the Republic of Ireland.
But Giggs has failed to make the most of the talented squad at his disposal in the last 12 months, much to the annoyance of an increasingly-unsettled fan base.
“There’s still a lot to come,” Roberts said. “Against Croatia we were touch and go, we were decent in patches.
“We had the two disappointing games (away to Croatia and Hungary) in the summer when we weren’t at our best.
“We weren’t at our best again against Azerbaijan. But hopefully things click sooner rather than later so we can get some momentum.”
Giggs will hope to include Aaron Ramsey for the trip to Slovakia and the home game with Croatia next month.
Ramsey has yet to feature in Euro 2020 qualification because of the hamstring problem which blighted the end of his Arsenal career and has delayed his Juventus debut.
“Aaron’s a brilliant player,” Roberts said.
“Since I’ve been in the squad he’s only played a handful of games. But when he has, he does make a difference.
“As well as Gaz (Bale), you’ve got him up there and you’ve got two world-class players playing for brilliant clubs. You always want your best players on the park, and hopefully he can be back fit and with us next month.”
Scotland’s hopes of qualifying for the 2020 European Championship through Group I rely on getting a positive result against Belgium, according to skipper Andy Robertson.
The 2-1 defeat by Russia at Hampden Park on Friday night – after John McGinn had given the home side an early lead – left the home team despondent.
Steve Clarke’s side finished the match six points behind the visitors after five fixtures with the Red Devils three points clear at the top with maximum points from five games.
The Scots have a Nations League semi-final place next March as a qualifying safety net of sorts but, if they are to forego that and reach the finals through the normal route, the Liverpool left-back concedes they have to take something on Monday night from the world’s number one ranked side.
Robertson knows Belgium have twice won comfortably in the two meetings between the sides in the last 12 months.
He said: “It doesn’t matter how far we are behind Belgium, they were always going to win this group comfortably.
“The worrying thing is how far we are behind Russia. We could have been the team to compete with them and now they are six points clear.
“That is going to be pretty hard to get back but we need to try and unfortunately we have Belgium at home next.
“There is no other option but to get a result and if we don’t get one on Monday, I think it will be verging on impossible to get through this group.
“We need the belief of that first 15 minutes, that we can cause good teams problems.
“Belgium are a big step up from Russia and when we get the ball we need to keep it because it is tough.
“It is going to be a hell of a task to believe we can get something from Belgium but we need to believe that we can.
“We need a point or three points, it is going to be very hard but you never know, if we show up we can cause teams problems.”