The halt in domestic football across Europe only meant one thing: the international break was upon us again, with Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland all in action.
There was only one place to start, and that was the first competitive meeting between Scotland and England in 17 years, and the 113th meeting overall since becoming the very first international fixture in history in 1872. The Scots had hoped for a repeat result of the last time the Tartan Army descended on Wembley for a competitive match, where Don Hutchison gave Scotland a 1-0 win in 1999.
Scotland started strongly but failed to test Joe Hart in the England goal, and England took the lead with their first shot on target through an excellent header by Daniel Sturridge, making it 1-0 at the interval. Scotland came out all guns blazing but excellent chances for both Robert Snodgrass and James Forrest were squandered, and Scotland were punished as England broke and Adam Lallana placed a well-directed header past Craig Gordon.
Gary Cahill later added a third – again from a header – to put the game out of Scotland’s reach. Many pundits claimed that Scotland were indeed the better side overall, but clinical finishing was the difference. This result leaves Scotland 5th in the table and hopes of World Cup qualification are fading fast, whilst England top Group F and remain favourites to reach Russia in 2018.
It was a positive night for Northern Ireland as they defeated Azerbaijan 4-0 to go 2nd in Group C. They were in complete control from the get-go and took the lead in the 27th minute after a smart finish by Kyle Lafferty for his 20th goal for his country. Gareth McAuley made it two just before the break with a fine header and they were cruising. After the break, Conor McLaughlin scored his first international goal with a stunning header from an Oliver Norwood corner and Chris Brunt completed the rout with a deflected strike late on. Azerbaijan rarely troubled Michael McGovern in the Northern Ireland goal, who kept his third clean sheet in qualifying, and the longer that run continues the higher the chance that Northern Ireland will qualify for their first World Cup since 1986.
Elsewhere, Saturday night saw Ireland travel to Vienna for what was always going to be a tough match. Austria dominated the first half, allowing Ireland a measly 35 per cent possession and chances were few and far between, however Stoke forward Jonathan Walters squandered a great chance from six yards.
Ireland were much improved in the second half and a brilliant James McClean strike from Wes Hoolahan’s through ball gave them their first win over Austria since 1963, a result that puts them top of Group D.
Staying in Group D, Gareth Bale and Wales were held to a 1-1 draw by Serbia in Cardiff. The Real Madrid star, as expected, scored to put Wales in-front but they failed to add to their advantage and a late equaliser from an Aleksandar Mitrovic header gave Wales their third draw in qualifying.
Already four points behind leaders Ireland ahead of their meeting in Dublin in March, that is surely now a must-win match for Wales if they have any hope of topping the group.
Image courtesy of Mick BakerRooster