© Val Wagner/RTL
After September’s European Championship qualifiers, a sense of duality can be felt. Historic low followed a historic high, and the Grand Duchy now await the last four games on 10 points, three behind currently second-placed Slovakia. Let’s see what worked so effectively against Iceland and what collapsed so miserably in Portugal.
Record point tally
Although Monday’s nightmare in Faro tends to significantly blur some of the general impression, it is vital to think big picture first and foremost. Luxembourg’s 10 points collected is the most they have ever got in any qualification campaign in history. Let’s not forget the fact the country got there only halfway through their schedule this time around, giving the team plenty of potential to build on the early successes and make a genuine attempt at qualifying for their first-ever major international tournament.
Whether or not qualification will eventually be sealed, the 10-point record is bound to be surpassed in a matter of time. It is hard to imagine the Red Lions scoring zero points in their next three crucial matches against Iceland, Slovakia, and Bosnia & Herzegovina, but even if the worst comes to the worst, three points against Liechtenstein have to be the bare minimum for the conclusion of the qualifying stage.
It is also bordering on the impossible to predict how many points (and against which opponents) will suffice for a second-place finish, given the high number of permutations still in play. Even if we account for no miracles (so essentially Liechtenstein losing all their games and Portugal getting all remaining points from theirs), there are way too many variables in play as the four similarly-equipped national teams are about to face each other in the two months left from the proceedings.
However, in spite of the above, we can already see that at least a four-point improvement on Slovakia in the next four games is needed (unless Luxembourg beat Slovakia, because in that case, even finishing level on points does the job). In the meantime, beating Iceland away will be absolutely essential, such as the game against Bosnia at the Stade de Luxembourg, which would still offer a relatively high chance of qualifying, banking on Slovakia dropping points in their own four remaining games.
The streak continued against Iceland
Seeing out tough, but struggling opponents Iceland with three points was more or less the only objective towards the Lions heading into the international break. The squad selection brought little surprise to those who watched Luc Holtz’s line-ups throughout the year, as Luxembourg took to the pitch in the 4-3-3 often used in games where Luxembourg are expected to be able to control the flow of the game.
An early incident inside the box came a long way to ensure a perfect start: Leandro Barreiro clashed with goalkeeper Rúnarsson, and after several VAR checks from the referee, a penalty was eventually given. 33-year old defence mainstay Maxime Chanot took the spot kick in Gerson Rodrigues’ absence, and hit the space in the middle Rúnarsson had just vacated with his diving attempt. This was Chanot’s first goal for Luxembourg since scoring against San Marino in 2018, while it was also his first goal for club and country since his summer move from New York City FC to French Ligue 2 side Ajaccio.
Looking at the rest of the first half, it was as evenly-contested as is possible, and there was no real difference in the quality of chances (0.45 expected goals each), number of passes (161 vs 164), or possession rate (48% vs 52%). It was clear the game would depend on who can grab the opportunity and get the extra bit of magic that had been missing, to see the first open-play goal in the game.
It came well into the second half, by the time Luxembourgish legs started to look tired and Iceland were building slightly more momentum, with more confidence, in dangerous areas of the pitch. The Red Lions knew the only way to fight the threat off was to run away with a counter, which finally happened after 70 minutes, as young talent Yvandro embarked on a blistering 50-yard sprint with the ball at his feet, to then top it off by chipping it above an out-rushing Rúnarsson. In a two-goal lead, Luxembourg’s situation looked comfortable.
The picture slightly changed two minutes from the end of normal time, when Iceland’s own promising attacker, Hakon Háraldsson scored from a deadly finish after some eye-catching link-up play. Iceland then proceeded to throw most of their team forward in desperate search for an equaliser, but it backfired: Yvandro once again found the space between the defenders to dart into, and this time had options to choose from in attack. He ended up picking out Danel Sinani on his right, and the St Pauli winger soon made it three goals in his last three international games.
Holtz’s decision to stick with Alessio Curci after playing him in June already paid off in the end, as the young striker put in an emphatic performance up front, playing mostly with his back to goal and serving others. He had the vision to put a ball in behind the opposition defence for Yvandro’s solo run, having already had his own 1-on-1 opportunity that he missed. Another point worth noting in attack is the senior international debut of Aiman Dardari. The young Mainz U19 striker was a stoppage time sub coming on for Yvandro, but in a position where Luxembourg are lacking a constant, reliable scorer, it might as well have been the first of many for Dardari.
There were two key decisive points in the game: the early penalty set the pace and allowed Luxembourg to be more composed in their ball retention, while Yvandro’s goal came at the best time to put an end to a period in the game where the advantage looked to be waning by the minute. The win put the Red Lions in an identical position with Slovakia, except an inferior goal difference halfway through the campaign.
The disaster of Algarve – what went wrong?
Meetings between Portugal and Luxembourg have been happening with striking regularity over the last decade, and there appears to be a good reason for the Luxembourgish squad not to particularly look forward to these showpiece occasions. Having been beaten 5-0 and 6-0 in the last two head-to-head games respectively, one wonders if the players could have been doubting themselves before running out onto the pitch in Faro, Algarve, Portugal on Monday night.
With two of the starting midfielders (Chris Martins – Spartak Moscow, Mathias Olesen – Köln) missing, Holtz was forced to play less evident options right from the start, and he opted for Florian Bohnert (for extra stability on the right to counter Rafael Leão’s threat) and Timothé Rupil (a slightly more attacking profile than Martins).
The game plan involved playing out from the back – a very brave step from the years gone by where an amateur Luxembourg squad couldn’t have stood a chance passing it around at the back, but one which did prove costly in the end. Counting on the attackers’ prowess from counter-attacks (as showcased against Iceland), Holtz’s idea was for the two technically adept centre-backs, Maxime Chanot and Enes Mahmutović, to suck up the pressure and bypass Portugal’s high press from the deep areas, providing enough room to run into for Sinani and Yvandro.
Unfortunately, that part came crashing down. Anthony Moris were left vulnerable on a number of occasions coming up one-vs-one against world-class strikers. Maxime Chanot, so commanding against Iceland, couldn’t help but watch the tempo of the game pass him by as his game arguably slows and declines over the years. Mahmutović was also sloppier than was expected by his manager beforehand, while captain and right-back Laurent Jans was unfortunately only watching the back of his man Leão for the entirety of the game. The support from Bohnert on the right wasn’t enough, the counter-attacking scenarios non-existent, and the balls were served on a silver platter for the attackers either by the Luxembourg defence or one of the most creative players of his generation, Bruno Fernandes.
The euphoria after the Iceland win was obvious and there for all to see, the world lauding Luxembourg as the next possible underdogs to make it to the big stage, where Iceland already have been twice. Interviews from managers and players at press conferences and on various platforms before the Portugal game tended to focus on the fact it was not a game they would have to win, or even get a draw from. The emphasis was on how many more points Luxembourg would need after(!) losing to Portugal, and what eventualities could occur. I believe the lack of fighting spirit and courage to dream showed how ill-prepared the team was mentally for such a marquee occasion.
The 9-0 win is the joint-highest in the country’s history, dating back to 1911. The precedents were also losses by the same scoreline, against Germany (1936 Olympics) and England (1960; 1982). Joining the list now is a loss from the most productive year of Luxembourgish football, and statistically the most successful in the case the Grand Duchy get at least one point from their four games left.
There were some flashes against Portugal, especially from attackers. Barreiro brought his usual quality, Sinani made the most out of limited time on the ball, Vincent Thill and Dirk Carlson brought some spark to attack and defence, but nothing could stop a Portugal team on the roll.
As coach Holtz said after the game, though, it’s vital not to lose sight of the overall achievements so far. “I’d rather lose 9-0 here and win 3-1 against Iceland last Friday. We are going to analyse the game and find a way to bounce back, as we always have. We are going to do it again.”
So, clearly, the Road to Berlin is far from over. The next international break will see a game against Iceland in Reykjavík, before a potentially sold-out Stade de Luxembourg host a Slovakian team hungry to win. In the meantime, third place after six games doesn’t sound bad at all.