IT’S BEEN A fascinating week of international football for a number of reasons, encompassing plenty of eyebrow-raising results.
With that in mind, here are our picks of the stars who lit up many of the recent fixtures.
Roy Carroll (Northern Ireland): The Olympiacos man delivered an excellent performance to help Northern Ireland gain an unlikely draw in Porto, holding firm as wave after wave of Portugal attack threatened their opponents’ goal in the second half.
Darijo Srna (Croatia): One of the more underrated players in the Croatia side, Srna was effective in both attack and defence, as they secured a comfortable 2-0 win over Wales. Srna also gave a similarly efficient display at the weekend, as his side gained an important 2-1 away victory against Macedonia. Consequently, it looks likely to be a two-horse race for the Group A top spot, with Belgium and the Croatians well ahead of the chasing pack, on 10 points each.
Jonny Evans (Northern Ireland): The Manchester United defender gave an inspirational performance at centre back, keeping the likes of Ronaldo and Helder Postiga at bay for most of the game, and thus ensuring his side hung on for a 1-1 draw against the odds.
Vincent Kompany (Belgium): Belgium have only conceded once in their qualifying campaign thus far, and it’s in no small thanks to the role played by Kompany at the heart of their defence. He recently gave the type of imperious displays he has been consistently demonstrating for his club, against both Scotland and Serbia, even getting on the scoresheet against the former.
Alexander Anyukov (Russia): Many consider Ronaldo unstoppable in the form he’s in, but Anyukov, who was assigned the unenviable task of marking the winger, showed it can be done, as Portugal lost 1-0 to Russia, helping his side to maintain their 100% start to the campaign in the process.
Marco Reus (Germany): Reus produced the kind of magisterial display that even Ireland fans could appreciate on Saturday, scoring twice as Germany destroyed their opponents. He was similarly sumptuous, as the team went 4-0 ahead against Sweden, and was largely blameless for their second-half collapse.
Luka Modric (Croatia): Modric was typically assured and influential for Croatia in midfield, dictating the tempo of the play, as he helped his side gain valuable wins over Wales and Macedonia.
Steven Davis (Northern Ireland): Not only did Northern Ireland defend extremely well against Portugal, they also offered an attacking threat. And Southampton’s Davis was at the heart of much of their encouraging forward play, with his intelligent and incisive passing.
Wales’ Gareth Bale celebrates his winning goal during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Qualifying match against Scotland (David Davies/PA Wire/Press Association Images).
Gareth Bale (Wales): There was considerable hype about Bale from various sources last week, and in recent days, the Spurs man has shown why he is so highly rated. He scored two late goals, consequently inspiring Wales to victory over Scotland, and was again his side’s best player, as they were outplayed by Croatia.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Sweden): If Sweden do end up qualifying for the World Cup, they will owe much of their success to the Paris Saint-Germain striker. First, he got the winner, as Sweden struggled to a victory over the Faroes. He then showed his class, as his header proved the catalyst for Sweden’s astonishing comeback against Germany.
Miroslav Klose (Germany): It was, by all accounts, an unusual week for the Germany’s footballers. However, one aspect of the side that was of little surprise, was that Klose scored against both Ireland and Sweden, bringing him closer than ever (pardon the pun) to Gerd Muller’s all-time record of 68 goals for the German national team.
Igor Akinfeev (Russia): Russia rode their luck at times against Portugal, and one of their heroes on the night was Akinfeev, who produced a number of excellent stops to begin Portugal’s week of misery. Should he continue to perform with such distinction, then surely a club bigger than CSKA Moscow will soon come calling.
Ron Vlaar (Netherlands): The Aston Villa man was excellent at the back, as the Netherlands gained an impressive 4-1 victory in Romania, banishing all memories of their disastrous Euro 2012 campaign in the process.
Kim Kallstrom (Sweden): Produced a disappointing display against the Faroe Islands and was subsequently dropped from the starting side for the Germany game. However, it was no coincidence that his introduction coincided with Sweden’s miraculous comeback, given his instrumental role in the team’s first two goals, as he reacted in the best possible way to being left out of the side.
Nigel De Jong (Netherlands): The AC Milan midfielder doesn’t always get the praise he deserves, owing his unflashy and at times overly combative nature. And while he was not among the goalscorers in Holland’s 4-1 defeat of Romania, his assured defensive midfield display allowed the likes of Van der Vaart and Van Persie to excel in attack.
Mario Balotelli (Italy): Despite having to play almost all of the second half with ten men, Italy gained an impressive 3-1 win over Denmark, and the Man City striker was roundly praised for his performance. Not only did he score the side’s all-important third goal, after Denmark had previously threatened to get back in the game, he was also praised by his coach for the ‘maturity’ his performance – not a word often associated with the striker.
Manager – Michael O’Neill (Northern Ireland): After seeing his side endure the dual setbacks of losing to Russia and drawing with Luxembourg, it was always going to be a challenge for Michael O’Neill to motivate his players to deliver a respectable performance, let alone earn a positive outcome against Portugal. Yet they delivered with aplomb, as the manager oversaw a result that was on a par with his best Shamrock Rovers achievements.