Unsung Iceland and Wales took big steps toward qualifying for the European Championships on Thursday — and they don’t intend to take the long road to the expanded 24-team tournament just because there are more ways to qualify.
Iceland stunned 10-man Netherlands 1-0 in Amsterdam and leads Group A, while Gareth Bale scored a late goal for Wales in a 1-0 victory in Cyprus to give the British squad a three-point lead over Belgium atop Group B.
Iceland has never qualified for a major tournament, while Wales’ only appearance came at the 1958 World Cup.
"We know what we have to do," Bale said. "We are a strong team, we are together. We know what our capabilities are. We have earned the right to be in this position."
Meanwhile, Graziano Pelle saved Italy from embarrassment against Malta again, securing a 1-0 win against the 160th-ranked opponent to move the Azzurri in command of Group H.
Pelle also scored in a 1-0 win at Malta in October.
"That’s my job — to score," he said. "It’s never easy. Football is very balanced these days."
The top two finishers from the nine groups qualify automatically for next year’s tournament in France. The best third-placed team also qualifies automatically, and eight more teams can qualify through a playoff.
Here is a look at Thursday’s Euro 2016 qualifying matches:
Arjen Robben’s first match as Netherlands captain was over inside a half hour as he limped off the Amsterdam Arena pitch injured and had to watch from the sideline as his team lost 1-0 to group leader Iceland.
Danny Blind’s debut as national coach went from bad to worse in the 33rd minute when referee Milorad Mazic showed defender Bruno Martins Indi a direct red card for making a striking movement with his arm as he tumbled to the ground in a tackle with Kolbeinn Sigthhorsson.
Blind was highly critical of Martins Indi, calling his foul, "unbelievably unprofessional."
"This is not the scenario you have in mind for your first match as Netherlands coach," the coach added.
Gylfi Sigurdsson converted a 51st-minute penalty for Iceland’s only goal after Gregory van der Wiel brought down Birkir Bjarnason.
Sigurdsson must wish he played only the Netherlands — the midfielder scored twice in Iceland’s 2-0 home defeat of the Dutch last October.
In other qualifiers, the Czech Republic came from behind to beat Kazakhstan 2-1 to stay second, and Latvia drew 1-1 with Turkey.
Wales is one win from qualifying for a first major tournament in 58 years after Gareth Bale powered in an 82nd-minute header to clinch a 1-0 victory in Cyprus.
Wales, which reached an all-time high ninth in FIFA’s rankings hours earlier, has a three-point lead over Belgium.
Marouane Fellaini, Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard gave Belgium a 3-1 victory over Bosnia-Herzegovina.
With three games remaining, Israel stayed two points further back after routing Andorra 4-0.
Beating Israel on Sunday will secure Wales’ first trip to a tournament since the 1958 World Cup.
Italy took command of the group after scraping out a 1-0 win over Malta with a second-half goal from Graziano Pelle.
It appeared that Pelle used his shoulder or arm to redirect in a cross from Antonio Candreva in the 69th. But it wasn’t clear if the goal should have been disallowed.
"When I re-watch it I’ll be able to tell," Pelle said.
Italy is level on 15 points with Croatia, which was held to 0-0 in Azerebaijan and is likely to lose a point for fan trouble pending an appeal.
Norway, which won 1-0 at Bulgaria, is next with 13 points, followed by Bulgaria with eight, Azerbaijan with five, and Malta with one.
Vegard Forren scored his first international goal for Norway in the 57th with a volley.
In Azerbaijan, the closest either side came to scoring was a shot off the crossbar from Croatia’s Ivan Perisic in the second half.