Matchday 2 is in the bag as European countries look to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Already we are seeing some giants falter or underwhelm whilst others look to be making swift progress towards the World Cup. Here are the best and worst from the past two days:
Winners: Georgia and Spain
Now of course Georgia did not win at home to Spain. Quite the opposite, Dani Olmo's swerving late strike parried into the top corner by Giorgi Loria as the visitors overcame a hal-time deficit to win 2-1 and save their World Cup qualifying campaign from the mire. Yet both sides deserve enormous credit for this thrilling contest, one where Willy Sagnol's men deserved at least a point.
You would not have said that of Spain after 45 minutes. That the team in red was so passive for so long on the road may not come as much surprise to Spaniards. In five away games since the resumption of international football in September, Luis Enrique's side had scored three goals, never netting more than once in a game. Indeed the heavy Nations League wins over Ukraine and Germany are beginning to feel like freak outliers for a team that struggles to turn possession into clear-cut opportunities.
That was certainly true in the first half in Tblisi, where 75 percent possession brought one shot on target, an early effort by Ferran Torres. Georgia took their chance with an excellent counter-attack, Khvicha Kvaratskhelia punishing Pedro Porro for leaving space in behind him and finishing with an excellent low drive. It was a lesson in attacking efficiency that Spain would have done well to heed.
They did as Ferran Torres netted the equalizer early in the first half but it was to the credit of Sagnol's side, cheered on by a smattering of their own supporters in the Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena, that they responded to that setback with greater intensity and energy, pursuing the winner with ever more aggression. Equally Spain were moving the ball with greater speed and purpose with Olmo and Thiago setting the tone after their arrival in the second half.
This was no repeat of Spain's 0-0 draw with Greece; Georgia were determined to win. Equally that meant they were willing to risk losing the game and a cutback from the excellent Marcos Llorente in the 86th minute led to pin-balling in the home penalty area. Just as the hosts looked like they might hold on for a richly deserved point they were undone by the outstanding moment of the game, Olmo picking the ball up outside the box, spinning and quickly firing at goal.
A point would have been a serious problem for Spain after they were held by Greece with Sweden threatening to be serious rivals for top spot. As is they will return from the Caucasus bruised but well placed in their qualifying campaign.
Loser: French forwards
France ultimately got the job done in Kazakhstan, a 2-0 win earned in the first half through Ousmane Dembele and an own goal from Serhiy Malyi just before the interval. But following on from after an underwhelming home draw against Ukraine to kick off qualifying, the World Cup holders are not exactly catching the imagination of Europe with their attacking play.
That was all the more perplexing considering the side Didier Deschamps started with, Paul Pogba and Tanguy Ndombele servicing a front four of Dembele, Antoine Griezmann, Thomas Lemar and Anthony Martial. Yet although Pogba showed an impressive range of passing from deep there was little offered by France that really tested Kazakhstan, who sat deep and simply challenged their visitors to charm their way toward goal.
There was fluidity from France but at the cost of a reference point. Martial, who despite an assist for Dembele was as disappointing today as he has been for most of this season with Manchester United, seemed unable to find the avenues to run into around the Kazakhstan defense. Griezmann flitted around and looked elegant on the ball without ever seeming to pose much of a threat. The introduction of Kylian Mbappe, widely criticized for his display against Ukraine, sparked life out of the frontline midway through the second half but still his most notable contribution was a penalty late on that was superbly saved by veteran goalkeeper Aleksandr Mokin.
Dembele's late yellow for a frustrated tackle resonated with the frustration of a talented group who have not quite consistently clicked in an attacking sense for some time. Deschamps perhaps won't worry too much: it is no easy thing to break down opponents whose gameplan starts and ends with defesce whilst his players have a track record of attritional football that has earned them major silverware. Yet it is doubtless frustrating that such a glittering array of forwards can offer so little when brought together.
Winner: Group F for fun
Although Turkey have spiced up their fixtures with the Netherlands and Norway, for the most part the early rounds of World Cup qualifying have seen the big teams start well enough to suggest that they'll be in the hat. Perhaps the one group that promises intrigue and drama until the end of the year will be Group F, which contains four teams more than capable of taking points off those around them.
Denmark are the group's top seed but are not the force they were several years ago in accruing the ranking points that took them to the title of 12th-best team in the world last November with star playmaker Christian Eriksen in particular having atrophied at Inter Milan. Still for the most part they have lived up to their billing and followed their 2-0 victory in Israel with a new record for their biggest win with an 8-0 thrashing of Moldova, five of those goals scored in the first 21 minutes.
Meanwhile an Austrian side without star names such as Marcel Sabitzer and Marko Arnautovic rather stumbled out of the blocks as they twice gave up leads to Scotland in the first match and briefly fell behind to the Faroe Islands before hammering home three before the interval on their way to a 3-1 win. In short, this is the group that keeps on giving goals.
Best of all might have been Israel and Scotland, who resumed their burgeoning rivalry from the Euro 2020 qualifiers when Steve Clarke's side earned their return to tournament football. These two both tried to play progressive, attack-minded football and had just about enough quality across the pitch to add some real zip to this contest: Kieran Tierney in particular impressing in a number of roles across the Scot's left flank.
A long-range outswinger by Dor Peretz fired Israel into the lead just before the break but Clarke responded to an underwhelming first half from his side impressively, switching to a back four at the break and pushing John McGinn closer to the impressive Che Adams, who laid on the assist for Ryan Fraser's equalizer, Scotland's third of the group stages so far.
Two games in then this promises to be an intriguing group with plenty of goals, Denmark set as the frontrunners but with a tough test ahead of them in Austria in midweek. Neither Israel nor Scotland will go down without a fight either and the Faroe Islands are proving they will not be a walkover. For neutrals and interested observers, Group F is the one to watch.
Winner: Luke Shaw
For all the intrigue about who starts on the right side of England's defense, a 2-0 win in Albania showed there is an intriguing battle to be had on the other flank with Shaw's recent revival at Manchester United offering serious options in a position that Gareth Southgate had felt was a weak point in 2020.
Suddenly a spot that seemed nailed-on for Chelsea's Ben Chilwell promises to be a serious battle with Shaw having impressed in his first appearance for the Three Lions since 2018, most of all with an excellent assist for Harry Kane in the first half. As Mason Mount drew Albania's right flank out of shape before a back heel handed the ball to England's No. 3 in the position to whip a ball in from level with the box. His delivery was on the money, his captain's header unstoppable.
It should have been no surprise that Shaw would find his man, he is having his best attacking season since he moved to Manchester United from Southampton. Having never previously averaged more than 1.3 chances created per 90 in the Premier League he is registering 2.27 in 2020-21. He has delivered more accurate crosses this league season than in every previous one with the Red Devils.
Shaw is not the only England player enjoying a breakout year and transferring that form to the international stage. Kane is able to play a similar international role to that he does with Tottenham, surrounded by runners he can drop deep and make late runs into the box. Meanwhile Mason Mount carried his Chelsea form with him, scoring the second in Tirana with a precise finish.
Southgate has options across the field, young players in form and competition for places ahead of a competition where England will play on home soil. There is cause for optimism around Wembley Stadium.
Loser: Stephen Kenny
A record of four draws and six defeats from 10 games in charge does not necessarily feel a fair reflection of what Kenny has done and what he has been trying to do since he succeeded Mick McCarthy nearly a year ago. Ireland's former Under-21 manager has attempted to bring many of those young players he worked with along with him, adding the likes of Aaron Connolly, Gavin Bazunu and Dara O'Shea to a squad that needed refreshing.
Ireland try to go about things in a modern way, to dictate games that they once sat back in. Kenny has the public backing of his players. Yet all of that counts for very little when you have lost 1-0 at home to Luxembourg. On Sunday morning the Irish press hummed with questions over whether a manager appointed for the long term could survive what felt like one of the most embarrassing defeats in the nation's history.
"Tonight was unacceptable, absolutely," said Kenny. "I can't tell you how disappointing it is to lose that game."
"Tonight isn't just about Stephen's faults, or the team's faults. This has been coming for a good while.— Virgin Media Sport (@VMSportIE) March 27, 2021
"This is the fault of a lack of a proper player development structure and coaching structure in Ireland."
Brian Kerr on Irish football.#COYBIG #IRLLUX #WCQ pic.twitter.com/plFwZRugR2
It should be noted that Luxembourg are not the walkover they once were and have drawn against France and beaten Hungary and Montenegro in recent years. Gerson Rodrigues, who scored the visitors' winner, plays for Dinamo Kiev whilst Ireland's goalkeeper Bazunu is on loan at League One side Rochdale. The Red Lions are not as weak as they once were, the Boys in Green are not as good as they once were.
Still defeat may ultimately cost Kenny his job.