Luxembourg's men's national team kicked off their European Championship qualifying campaign last week. A heroic 0-0 draw in Slovakia was followed by a disheartening 6-0 thrashing by frequent opponents Portugal. Is there a the possibility of making the first major tournament in the country's history?
Luxembourg's chances to qualify for a European Championship have probably never been better. That is a fact many around the camp and among the fans are well aware of, and the buzz about this international window has been particularly high.
There are several reasons for that, of course. To start with, the team are riding a wave. They have only lost two of their past ten games (including the Portugal loss), and their fabulous new home Stade de Luxembourg's unveiling in 2019 has coincided with some of the best football played by the Red Lions in the Luc Holtz era, which garners enough enthusiasm on its own.
The upward turn in results has of course opened other avenues for the team to qualify for tournaments. For the 2024 edition hosted in Germany, two teams of each of the ten qualifying groups are granted automatic entries, with a further three places to be given out through UEFA's Nations League competition. It sounds encouraging enough, given Luxembourg's high placements and strong showings in the past two Nations League seasons are what resulted in being drawn from a more favourable pot when the qualifier draw came along.
At the draw itself, we got put in Group J, alongside Portugal, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Slovakia, Iceland and Liechtenstein. Far from an easy draw at first glance if we take into account there is only two spaces up for grabs – on the other hand, it is still one of the better combinations we could wish for. The early consensus among the Luxembourg hopeful was of a tight contest involving four teams above runaway qualifiers Portugal, and also-rans Liechtenstein. Iceland and Slovakia have been stagnating at best in recent years, while although Bosnia were always going to be a hard nut to crack, in a form of five unbeaten games in a row, Luxembourg could be forgiven for feeling ambitious.
Here we are now, with two games played and a way more realistic picture on what to expect in the remaining eight. The table shows us in fifth place as the only winless team besides (fellow?) minnows Liechtenstein. Of course it would be wrong to expect to see any realistic power rankings just yet, but the teams' performances offer a better tool to judge roughly what to anticipate from us and our rivals in the coming games.
From Luxembourg's perspective, things looked far from horrible despite what the majority would make out of the dispiriting 6-0 loss at Stade de Luxembourg on Sunday night. There were some flaws, and there had to be some for this team to lose by six goals to anyone, but the promising signs still outweighed all the negatives. At the Slovakia game, we could count ourselves a bit down on luck not to have come home from Trnava with three points gained and a perfect start taken.
What it all came down to on that occasion was final-third decision making and chance converting. One of the most glaring observations to be made about the national team for months (if not years) is the lack of a classic No 9, who can get on the end of chances and put some away. We are well-equipped (overloaded almost) in creativity, playing three players in attack of whom none are actual forwards, in Gerson Rodrigues, Yvandro (mainly wingers) and Danel Sinani (primarily an attacking midfielder). Luc Holtz experimented with Vincent Thill in a central attacking role against Portugal too, but his best perormances have always come off the wings previously. We ended up staying quiet in front of the opponents' goal for both games. The only solution to this problem is an old-fashioned, reliable striker in Aurélien Joachim's or Dave Turpel's mould from the past eras.
One potential solution to the problem could be Monza's versatile attacker Dany Mota. The 25-year old is still committed to representing Portugal though, despite having never got his chance so far. With the Iberian country being one of the most reliable conveyor belts for young attacking talent, the door is slowly closing for Mota, but it looks like the striker is determined to stick around as long as it is ajar. He already has Luxembourgish citizenship having been born in Niederkorn but did not represent the Grand Duchy at youth level at any point.
Another position where a change might be timely is at centre-back. New York City FC's defender Maxime Chanot led the line almost flawlessly against Slovakia, commanding his backline with the plethora of experience behind him. Laurent Jans had a respectable, if slightly unconvincing game against Portugal upon his return into the team, while Leandro Barreiro slotted in seamlessly and played comfortably out of position in the back. We can look away from Marvin Martins' horrid 45 minutes against Portugal clearly playing in an unfamiliar role and with the task of stopping João Félix and Cristiano Ronaldo, and the issues are narrowed down to one person.
As detailed above, it would be harsh and shamefully simplistic to imply the 6-0 loss is entirely to be blamed on veteran defender Lars Gerson. The experienced 33-year old currently plying his trade in Norway's second-division with Kongsvinger cannot be called much worse than anyone who played alongside him on Sunday evening, as the whole defence was vulnerable. But whereas for practically every other underperforming player it could be regarded as just one of those days, it is far too repetitive in Gerson's case. I do believe a national team squad constantly improving in quality and depth has reached a point where we have enough reliable alternatives to replace a once incredibly useful and creative, but slowly declining Gerson, whose place in the starting line-up is coveted by many.
In the current squad we can already find a young crop of players waiting for their opportunity in defence, often overlooked options Enes Mahmutović from CSKA Sofia, Tim Hall from Hungarian side Újpest or St. Pölten's Dirk Carlson, all of whom are natural options in their preferred position. The upcoming youth age group also has talents like Fabio Lohei (Metz), Sofiane Ikene (Nürnberg) or Eldin Dzogović (Magdeburg), of which all three have made Luxembourg senior squads before.
Despite all of the shortcomings, or less-than-ideal depth in the positions detailed above, we cannot complain about either the strength of the squad or the record of one point in two games so far. Whether it is going to be enough to qualify is a different matter, though.
Losing to Portugal will not have a significant amount of impact on our final ranking in all probability, although as it is unlikely they will end the group with a perfect record of ten out of ten wins, any team who gets a point off them gain a head start over others. The only negative so far is not taking that opportunity. A point away in Slovakia is also perfectly in line with expectations. For all many heralded our resilient effort to keep our opponents at bay and secure a draw, it should not be forgotten that the two countries play in the same level of the UEFA Nations League, achieving similar results. Luxembourg have simply developed to the level where these sort of results are to be predicted – and, if our Euro-qualifying attempt is serious, expected, too.
The real test are about to come against Iceland and Bosnia next. Iceland have shown that they will not walk into this group with their hands held up in surrender, as they emphatically put seven past Liechtenstein in the second matchday. Regardless of the quality of their opponent, that attack looked frightening on the day. It should also not be forgotten how tough Iceland's defence always has been and that the personnel have not changed much in the past years.
Bosnia & Herzegovina will pose a slightly different, but generally similar challenge. Their loss to Slovakia offers hope for Luxembourg, as Bosnia were regarded as the most challenging opponents to get past if we are about to get second place eventually. Their squad is the only one except Portugal's that is said to be arguably stronger than Luxembourg’s, and most betting sites have them as favourites for the second place.
In June, the Red Lions will continue their campaign against Liechtenstein, in a hopefully positive and cheerful environment, serving as the perfect catalyst for the ultimate challenge that Bosnia & Herzegovina will pose away from our home. Three points from those two games is the bare minimum and a return that would still leave us in the race for second, but not in an advantageous position. Four of six points would be an outstanding start. Whichever happens, the summer fixtures will tell us a lot more about the reality than what we have currently gathered.
The road is rough, the opponents tough, but as the fully packed Stade de Luxembourg has shown: even at the worst of times, this team will have the backing of fans. The overarching perception within the country is that this is our time. This young team has the chance to achieve what even the biggest Luxembourgish stars could not. And at the end of the road, if we are lucky, is 'Ons Heemecht', on full blast, in a stadium somewhere in Germany next summer. With many of our passionate ultras in the stands, and potential national heroes lining up on the turf.
That is the aim.