Football Features

Wales march on as Ukraine’s super sub seals win: Seven things you might have missed from the Euro 2024 play-offs

By Harry Edwards

Published: 21:53, 21 March 2024

While many fans will be bemoaning the international break for pointless friendlies, there has been a lot of important action in Europe.

Thursday saw the semi-finals of the Euro 2024 play-offs, with 12 teams fighting out for the final three spots at this summer’s tournament. The play-offs are split across three different levels, Path A, Path B and Path C.

In Path A, Poland hosted Estonia while Wales welcomed Finland. Path B saw Israel take on Iceland and Bosnia and Herzegovina face Ukraine. In Path C, Georgia faced Luxembourg and Greece hosted Kazakhstan.

With a lot of action across the continent at varying levels, and other teams in friendly action, it can be easy to miss the play-offs. So, we’ve rounded up the best stats and stories below.

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David Brooks leads Wales to final

All Welsh eyes turned to Cardiff on Thursday night as the Dragons continued their quest for a third consecutive major tournament. They reached the last 16 of Euro 2020 and were then knocked out of the group stage at the 2022 World Cup.

Wales are also looking to qualify for three consecutive European Championships, a streak which started with that run to the semi-finals on debut. And now they are just one win away from booking their spot in Germany.

David Brooks was one of the Welsh heroes with a goal and assist, setting Wales on their way inside three minutes. It was an instinctive finish, running into the box and reacting quickest after Harry Wilson’s shot was saved. He then knocked the ball across goal from an early second-half free-kick, which was tapped in by Brennan Johnson.

It’s the first time that Brooks has both scored and assisted in the same game for Wales. And what a time to do it.

Neco Williams’ scoring form

The second goal, which Brooks wasn’t involved in, was a cracker. It was a free-kick just inside the D, and many expected Harry Wilson to shape up to shoot.

But the Fulham midfielder ran over the ball, rolling it back slightly for Neco Williams to hit. The Nottingham Forest defender’s strike was pure, and went straight into the top right corner, leaving the goalkeeper with no chance.

Williams’ fourth goal for Wales, the defender has now scored in consecutive games for the national team, also netting in the 1-1 draw with Turkey at the end of Euro 2024 qualifying.

A thumping in Athens

One-time European champions, Greece haven’t hit the heights of Euro 2004, with just two appearances since. They bowed out at the group stage in Euro 2008 before falling at the quarter-finals in 2012.

So it’s now 12 years since Greece were last at the European Championships, but they’re now one win away from booking a return. It was a comfortable and comprehensive victory, with the damage done in the first half. They were 4-0 up with four different goalscorers, and the win was rounded off with a late own goal.

It was just the fifth time Kazakhstan have lost by a margin of at least five goals, and the first since falling 8-0 to France.

Robert Lewandowski takes a back seat in Poland rout

If we told you that Poland put five past Estonia, your first thought would surely be how many Robert Lewandowski got.

Well, the answer in this instance is none! The Barcelona forward did get an assist, but Poland weren’t relying on him to book their spot in the play-off final.

It was only 1-0 at half-time with Przemyslaw Frankowski opening the scoring, before Piotr Zielinski doubled the lead five minutes after the break. While 2-0 isn’t a comfortable scoreline, Poland were in full control of the game, not really looking like losing.

But they did make sure the win was secure with three goals in seven minutes, the first set up by Lewandowski for Jakub Piotrowski. Karol Mets scored an own goal before Sebastian Szymanski made it 5-0. Martin Vetkal scored a consolation for Estonia just a minute after the fifth goal, the only blemish on the victory.

Ukraine’s dramatic comeback

With just over five minutes left to play in their play-off semi-final, Ukraine were getting knocked out. They trailed Bosnia and Herzegovina thanks to an own goal from Mykola Matviienko and were fighting a losing battle.

But with 10 minutes left to play, Roman Yaremchuk was brought off the bench. And boy was that an inspired substitution.

Yaremchuk scored the equaliser with five minutes left to play and then set up Artem Dovbyk’s winner just three minutes later. Nine minutes on the pitch, one goal and one assist. You won’t get many super subs with a better record than that.

Albert Gudmundsson matches year-best in one game

Albert Gudmundsson has never scored more than three goals in a calendar year for Iceland.

He scored three in nine games in 2018, though they all came in a win over Indonesia, and then netted three in 11 in 2021. But his record in 2024 currently stands at one game and three goals. His second Iceland hat-trick, Gudmundsson orchestrated the comeback against Israel, and has put his side on the brink of a return.

Iceland haven’t been at the Euros since their run to the quarter-finals in 2016. They couldn’t, could they?

Five minutes of chaos

Who says VAR can’t be fun? With respect to both nations, not many eyes will have been on Georgia’s game against Luxembourg in the Path C semi-final.

But it was a match worth keeping an eye on. Georgia opened the scoring just before half-time but Luxembourg pulled level within 10 minutes of the restart. Or so we thought.

After Gerson Rodrigues put the ball in the back of the net, VAR took over. Around 40 seconds before the goal, Georges Mikautadze was brought down on the edge of the Luxembourg box, with the referee not deeming it a foul. Given the proximity, a penalty check ensued, and Luxembourg were made to wait.

Two minutes later the referee went to the screen and although the Georgia penalty wasn’t awarded, Luxembourg defender Maxime Chanot was sent off for denying a goalscoring opportunity. And, most importantly, the goal disallowed.

Playing against 10 men, Georgia got their second and are now just one win away from the Euros…