While Kevin Kilbane (8th) and Clinton Morrison (17th) were ensuring a winning start for the Brian Kerr-era against Scotland, group leaders Switzerland, whose 2-1 stunner at Lansdowne Road last October ultimately cost Kerr’s predecessor his job, were routing Slovenia 5-1 in Nova Gorica.
In Nicosia, Russia, six points ahead of the listing Irish and a point adrift of the Swiss in second place, triumphed twice in as many days to win a four-nation tournament organized by the Cypriot FA. The Russians beat Cyprus, 1-0, on Wednesday and Romania, 4-2, on Thursday.
The clockwork Swiss had their hosts in arrears after 90 seconds when Hakan Yakin connected. Before the 90 minutes were up, Bernt Haas (29th), Alexander Frei (36th, 77th), and Ricardo Cabanas (50th) had added to the tally. Ermin Rakovic (78th) got Slovenia’s face-saver.
The Swiss (2-1-0, 7) return to the Euro ’04 fray against Georgia on April 2, four days after the former Soviet Republic hosts winless and second from the bottom Ireland.
Georgia’s own preps for the Republic game ended in a 2-2 draw with Moldova in Tbilisi. Serghei Dadu (77th, 82nd) canceled out strikes by the home side’s Davit Chaladze (61st) and Mikhel Ashvetia (80th) to earn Moldova the tie.
Russia, who started Ireland’s Euro qualifying woes with that 4-2 drubbing in Moscow last September, knocked off Cyprus on Dmitry Khokhlov’s goal before overwhelming Romania with a rapid three-goal blitz in the final 24 hours later. Sebastian Tamas (11th) drew first blood for the Romanians, but a 12-minute Russian siege had the central Europeans trailing 3-1 at the interval courtesy of a Florin Soava own goal (29th), Andrei Karayka (34th), and Andrei Arshavin (41st). Rolan Gusev (58th penalty) sealed it on resumption despite Stefan Grigorie (70th) pulling one back from the spot as well.
Northern Ireland’s scoring drought was extended to six games following their 1-0 loss to Finland at a foggy Windsor Park in Belfast.
Liverpool center-half Sami Hyypia (49th) notched the winner.
Sammy McIlroy’s men, who were warming up for their March 29 Euro ’04 qualifier against Armenia, were twice denied by the woodwork after efforts by Steve Lomas and Stuart Elliott.
Northern Ireland shore up the bottom in the Spain-led Group 6, with one point from a draw and a loss. But they have a game in hand and are only four points behind second-placed Ukraine who tied 0-0 with Turkey in Izmir.
Armenia, meanwhile, fell 2-0 in Tel Aviv to Israel, whose Avi Nimni (19th) and Michael Zandberg (62nd) scored.
Spain, behind Raul’s brace (30th, 75th penalty), looked awesome in outclassing Germany 3-1 in Mallorca. Jose Maria Guti (81st) was the other Spanish marksman, while Fredi Bobic (38th) made it look respectable for the Germans.
Sven-Goran Eriksson threw two different teams at soccer minnows Australia but still couldn’t solve the “Socceroos” who run off 3-1 winners at Upton Park in London.
Tony Popovic (17th) and Harry Kewell (42nd) were on target in a stunning first half against Eriksson’s big guns. Brett Emerton (84th) capped the upset after Francis Jeffers (70th) had raised hopes of a revival by the young side sent on by Eriksson in the second half.
There was further anguish in Paris where the Czech Republic blanked France 2-0 in a rematch of their 1998 World Cup semi-final which Zidane and co. won 2-1.
Zdenek Grygera (8th) and Milan Baros (63rd) were on target for the Czechs, whose next Euro qualifier is an early crunch match with Group 3 leaders Holland in Amsterdam on March 29.
The Dutch limbered up for that affair with a 1-0 decision over Argentina. Giovanni Van Bronkhorst (87th) struck.
John Hartson’s 74th equalizer against Bosnia in a 2-2 tie in Cardiff rewrote Welsh history as Mark Hughes’ side established a new unbeaten run.
Zambian-born forward Robert Earnshaw (8th) also connected as Wales completed their ninth game without defeat, bettering the records set by Mike England’s team of the early 1980s and Jimmy Murphy’s 1958 World Cup squad.
Bosnia, however, nearly spoilt the party as they twice led through Elvir Baljic (5th) and Sergej Barbarez (64th).
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Wales now lead Group 9 by four points over second-placed Serbia-Montenegro (formerly Yugoslavia) after the latter’s 2-2 tie with Azerbaijan in Podgorica, in the only Euro ’04 qualifier played last week.
Gurban Gurbanov (59th, 78th) starred for the visitors, twice pegging back strikes by the Serbs’ Predrag Mijatovic (33rd penalty) and Nicola Lazetic (52nd).
Italy, third in the group five points behind Wales, marred Brazil’s
World Cup-winning manager Luiz Felipe Scolari’s debut as Portugal’s coach via a 1-0 result in a friendly in Genoa.
Bernardo Corradi earned his first cap in style by bagging the winner (62nd).
In other results, Brazil and China drew 0-0 in Guangdong, Najeh Brahim (48th) was on target in Tunisia’s surprise 1-0 home win over Sweden, while in Cairo, Claus Jensen’s hat-trick (31st, 68th, 70th) brought Denmark back from a goal down to a 4-1 romp over Egypt.
Jon Dahl Tomasson (59th) was the other Danish scorer after Ahmed Hossam’s opener (21st).