The stars of last year’s World Cup had to dig deep as European Championship qualifying began Thursday.
World Cup finalist Croatia nearly dropped points against Azerbaijan, only to be saved by a fine curling shot from Andrej Kramaric for a 2-1 win. Belgium needed two goals from Eden Hazard to defeat Russia 3-1 after a costly Thibaut Courtois error allowed the Russians back into the game.
The Netherlands failed to qualify for the last two major tournaments but showed no sign of nerves in a 4-0 win against Belarus. Memphis Depay gave the Dutch an early lead and finished with two goals and two assists.
Even with Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne missing through injury, Belgium took a big step toward qualifying by beating Russia, its main rival in Group I.
Youri Tielemans’ early goal for Belgium was cancelled out when a Courtois gave away the ball in a rare blunder which allowed Russia’s Denis Cheryshev to score. A new-look Russia team struggled to track Hazard and when defender Yuri Zhirkov tried, he ended up tripping the Belgian and giving away a penalty which Hazard converted.
Belgium could have scored more but for Michy Batshuayi hitting the post and having another shot cleared off the line.
Far away in Central Asia, perennial outsider Kazakhstan celebrated a rare win over an established football nation, beating Scotland 3-0. Cyprus routed San Marino 5-0 in the third Group I fixture.
Ever since losing to France in the World Cup final, Croatia has struggled to replicate the form of its greatest ever tournament showing.
Relegation in the Nations League last year was followed Thursday by a come-from-behind win over lowly Azerbaijan in Group E.
Azerbaijan — by far the lowest-ranked of all next year’s 12 European Championship hosts — took the lead with a fine solo goal. Ramil Sheydaev sprinted down the right flank in the 19th before striking the ball over the goalkeeper.
Azerbaijan then sat back to defend, frustrating Croatia, who came close with headers from Andrej Kramaric and Luka Modric. Croatia finally levelled in the 44th thanks to Borna Barisic’s quick reactions to jab the ball in on a rebound.
A moment of skill from Kramaric finally cracked the tenacious Azerbaijan defence as he cut in from the left flank and curled the ball in at the far post.
"It was difficult, more than we expected," coach Zlatko Dalic said. "We were patient, persistent and deserved this win."
There was violence ahead of the other Group E game as visiting Hungarian fans clashed with Slovakian supporters and police. Slovakia beat Hungary 2-0.
Memphis Depay needed just 50 seconds to score as the Netherlands continued its fine form from the Nations League with a straightforward win over Belarus in Group C.
The Dutch failed to qualify for the 2016 European Championship and 2018 World Cup, but are now unbeaten in five games including Nations League wins over the last two World Cup champions, Germany and France.
Depay backheeled a pass from Denzel Dumfries for Georginio Wijnaldum to score in the 21st, then converted a penalty in the 55th. His cross for Virgil van Dijk to make it 4-0 in the final minutes capped a dominant display. The defender has now scored three goals in his last four games for the Netherlands.
Northern Ireland ended a four-game winless run by beating Estonia 2-0 in the other Group C game. That helps its chances of reaching the European Championship for the second time ever, following a run to the last 16 in 2016.
POLAND EDGES AUSTRIA
After a poor 2018 for Poland, its first game of 2019 offered fresh hope in a tight 1-0 win over Austria in Group G.
Poland arrived at last year’s World Cup fresh off a dominant qualifying campaign, but went on to finish bottom of both its World Cup and Nations League groups.
Krzysztof Piatek scored the winner in the 69th minute as Austria failed to clear the ball from its penalty area.
That ended a six-game winless streak for Poland, including friendlies.
Also in Group G, Israel drew 1-1 with Slovenia and North Macedonia beat Latvia 3-1.
NEW FORMAT DEBUTS
There are a few key differences to European Championship qualifying this time. The top two teams in each group qualify automatically, but third place no longer means a shot at qualifying through the playoffs.
That safety net is now for the 16 teams who performed best in their Nations League tiers last year but who don’t end up with automatic spots.
That means Scotland is assured of a second chance to qualify in March 2020 even though a top-two finish now seems unlikely following its surprise opening-day loss to Kazakhstan.