The Euro 2020 line-up began to take shape on Thursday after big-hitters France and England qualified for next year’s finals alongside Turkey and the Czech Republic.
World champions France reached the tournament without having to kick a ball thanks to Turkey sealing their own qualification after a goalless draw with Iceland in the day’s early match.
Chelsea outcast Olivier Giroud then moved to within two international goals of France great Michel Platini with a late penalty that ensured a comeback win over a Moldova side ranked 175th in the world.
The celebratory mood was initially dampened when Vadim Rata punished abject defending to give Moldova a shock ninth-minute lead.
However Raphael Varane levelled for the hosts 10 minutes before break despite furious protests from the Moldovan players and their coach, who were convinced Giroud had fouled goalkeeper Alexei Koselev in the build-up.
Giroud then slotted home his 39th France goal from the spot in a confident manner that defied the fact he has only played 20 minutes for Chelsea since last month’s international break.
“I could and should have scored before the penalty. We quite simply didn’t get off to the start we should have done,” Giroud told French television.
– Kane crushes Montenegro –
Harry Kane fired England into the Euros in style with a hat-trick that helped the 2018 World Cup semi-finalists dismantle poor Montenegro 7-0 at Wembley.
Kane struck his treble in the first half as Gareth Southgate’s side racked up five before the break in England’s 1000th match, making light of the absence of Raheem Sterling, who was dropped by Southgate earlier in the week after an altercation with teammate Joe Gomez.
“We wanted to put on a show in our 1,000th game and with five goals in the first half I think we did that,” said Kane.
England displayed the firepower that will make them one of the favourites for next year’s European Championship as they sealed top spot in Group A.
Thursday’s demolition took them to 33 goals in seven qualifying matches following Tammy Abraham’s first international goal, further strikes from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Marcus Rashford and an own goal from Aleksandar Sofranac.
Kane meanwhile moved sixth in the all-time list of England goalscorers by taking his tally for the qualifying campaign to 11.
The Czech Republic followed England into the tournament after coming from behind to beat third-placed Kosovo 2-1.
They join former World Cup winners Spain and Italy, who kick off the multi-host tournament at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico on June 12, dark horses Belgium, Poland, Russia and Ukraine.
– Ronaldo eyes Portugal century –
Reigning European champions Portugal were made to wait for their place despite Cristiano Ronaldo hitting his ninth international hat-trick in a 6-0 thrashing of Lithuania in Faro.
Pizzi, Goncalo Paciencia and Bernardo Silva rounded off an easy win that keeps Portugal second in Group B behind already-qualified Ukraine and one point clear of third-placed Serbia, who beat Luxembourg 3-2.
They will secure their spot at next year’s finals with a victory in Luxembourg on Sunday.
Ronaldo has now scored 98 international goals after a seventh-minute penalty, a superb curling effort midway through the first half and a simple finish in the 65th minute, and the Juventus attacker will be hoping to become the second-ever player to reach 100 this weekend.
The Netherlands and four-time world champions Germany will make add to an already mouth-watering lineup on Saturday should they make it out of Group C.
Ronald Koeman’s resurgent Dutch need just a draw at Northern Ireland on Saturday to guarantee a spot at their first international tournament since coming third at the 2014 World Cup.
Joachim Loew’s Germany meanwhile have to better the Northern Irish’s result if they are to make the finals.
Teemu Pukki’s Finland meanwhile stand on the brink of their first ever major tournament, with a win over lowly Liechtenstein in Helsinki on Friday enough to see them qualify for their first ever European Championship.