Football Features

New dark horses? Nine things you might have missed from today’s international football

By Harry Edwards

Published: 21:51, 27 March 2021

Saturday brought another day full of international action both in World Cup qualifying and friendlies.

The likes of Netherlands, Portugal, Turkey, Wales and Ireland were all involved on the day. But what went down?

1. Are Turkey World Cup dark horses already?

Prior to the start of the qualifying group stage, how many people would have expected Turkey to get two wins from their opening two games? After all, they were going up against a Netherlands side among the favourites to win Euro 2020 in the summer (at the time of their game against Turkey) and a Norwegian team full of young attacking talent.

But Netherlands were beaten with relative ease, 4-2, including a Burak Yilmaz hat-trick and on Saturday Norway were brushed aside. With the form Erling Haaland has been in for Borussia Dortmund, many thought he would be putting the Turkish defence to the sword, but the android failed to hit the target with either of his two shots.

Instead, it was Turkish midfielder Ozan Tufan who stole the goalscoring headlines with a brace, either side of Caglar Soyuncu’s goal, to keep Senol Gunes’ side perfect and top of Group G (ahead of Montenegro on goal difference).

2. Norway continue in protest

Turkey’s win over Norway also saw the Norwegians protest once again for human rights in Qatar, having previously done so in their win over Gibraltar in midweek.

They donned similar shirts but, this time, the ‘Human rights on and off the pitch’ tagline was accompanied by recognition that they had been joined in their protests by Germany and asking who would follow suit. Netherlands were one of the teams to join them, as they wore ‘Football Supports Change’ shirts ahead of their game against Latvia.

Norway were not punished by FIFA for the first protest, as some had expected, with a spokesperson saying: “FIFA believes in the freedom of speech and in the power of football as a force for good.”

3. The Premier League stars in Portugal draw with Serbia

When Portugal faced Serbia, most eyes around the world will have been on Cristiano Ronaldo and his quest to close the gap on Ali Daei as men’s football’s all-time international top scorer. The Juventus forward entered the game on 102, just seven behind Iranian Daei, but he was overshadowed by Premier League stars.

After threatening early, Portugal took the lead through Diogo Jota, with the Liverpool man heading home from Manchester City midfielder Bernardo Silva’s pass towards the far post. Jota then got his second with another header later in the half, his time at the front post from a cross by Arsenal defender Cedric, putting Portugal in full control.

But just after the break, Portugal’s lead was halved by, you guessed it, Fulham striker Aleksandar Mitrovic, the fourth Premier League player to get involved in a goal. It was a milestone strike for Mitrovic too, who moved one goal clear of Stjepan Bobek as Serbia’s all-time top goalscorer on 39 goals.

The Premier League show was ended with Serbia’s equaliser, but it was an excellent move from the hosts with Filip Kostic capping off a quick counter attack that opened up Portugal on the hour mark. It ended in a draw but it was a dramatic one, as Serbia were reduced to 10 men and Portugal saw a winner denied by two goal-line clearances, with the first (from Ronaldo’s shot) looking as though it had crossed line. Where’s technology when you need it?

4. Luka Modric puts his name in Croatia’s history books

There was more history in one of Saturday’s earlier games as Luka Modric became Croatia’s all-time most-capped player, making his 135th appearance for The Blazers. He moved one clear of legend Darijo Srna and Modric will join him as Croatian royalty when he eventually retires (though to many he already is up there with the best).

It was a positive result for Croatia too, as they beat Cyprus 1-0 thanks to Mario Pasalic’s goal, getting their World Cup qualifying campaign on track after an opening defeat to Slovenia.

5. Kieffer Moore breaks long Mexico drought

Kieffer Moore is having an excellent season for Cardiff City, scoring 16 goals in 32 Championship appearances so far, and it’s form he has carried over to the Welsh national team.

Due to being in a group with just five teams, Wales had the night off from World Cup qualifying and instead hosted Mexico in a friendly. The Dragons had failed to score in either of their last two matches against Mexico, with John Charles the last Wales player to find the net in this fixture back in 1962.

It took Moore just 11 minutes to end that drought as he brilliantly controlled Jonny Williams’ cross before finishing for his fifth goal in the Wales shirt. Since Moore made his Wales debut in September 2019, no player has scored more goals for the national team.

6. Romelu rolls on

If someone knows how to stop Romelu Lukaku, can they let everyone in on their secret? Or not, because watching the Belgian tear defences apart has been excellent, particularly this season.

The unhappiness of Manchester United seems a distant memory for Lukaku who continues to prove just why he is one of the best strikers in the world right now, and not just at club level.

Lukaku scored in Belgium’s 1-1 draw with Czech Republic on Saturday, turning the defenders inside and out after receiving the ball from Kevin De Bruyne. It was his 36th goal in his last 31 appearances for the Red Devils (59 across 91 in total), a frankly ridiculous return that is made even better by the fact he has scored in each of his past 10 European Championship and World Cup qualifying games.

It comes at a time when Lukaku is being linked with a return to the Premier League and Chelsea (should they fail in signing Erling Haaland), but the Blues reportedly also face competition from Manchester City. His stock couldn’t be any higher.

7. Ireland humiliated at home

Oh, Ireland. Ohhh, Ireland. What more can we say?

The Boys In Green have been sliding down a slippery slope for quite some time now, lacking form and any kind of direction since Stephen Kenny replaced Mick McCarthy, now winless in their opening 10 games under the boss. And on Saturday they endured what may be their most embarrassing defeat.

That is said with no disrespect to Luxembourg, but this is a nation who, prior to their 1-0 win over Ireland in Dublin, had won just five times in World Cup qualifying (in 134 attempts) and only once away from home.

But Luxembourg were fully deserving of their win, with goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu keeping Ireland in the game until the 85th minute, when he could do nothing about Gerson Rodrigues’ strike.

The question is, where next for Ireland?

8. Stephanie Frappart makes history again

“Stephanie Frappart makes refereeing history.”

You can just save that phrase to paste later, because it will be used again. Stephanie Frappart has already made a name for herself as a record-breaking referee in the men’s game.

In April 2019, she became the first woman to referee a Ligue 1 match, officiating Amiens vs Strasbourg. Four months later (having also refereed the Women’s World Cup final), Frappart became the first woman to referee a major European final, taking charge of the 2019 Uefa Super Cup between Liverpool and Chelsea.

Then in December 2020, Frappart became the first woman to referee a men’s Champions League game, in Juventus’ 3-0 win over Dynamo Kyiv. And now, taking charge of Netherlands vs Latvia, Frappart became the first woman to referee a Men’s World Cup qualifier.

9. Netherlands get up and running

On the other side of Turkey’s win over Netherlands last week were the Oranje, and Frank de Boer’s side were in need of a swift turnaround when taking on Latvia on Saturday.

And they did exactly that, winning 2-0 to get just their second clean sheet under De Boer’s tutelage (the other coming in a goalless draw near the start of his reign). It means Netherlands have won three of their past four games under De Boer having failed to win any of their opening four, and they will be hoping this provides some stability after being rocked by Turkey.