Belgium — the world's top-ranked soccer nation — became the first team to qualify for Euro 2020 by crushing San Marino 9-0 on Thursday, matching the biggest margin of victory in its history. It was 6-0 by halftime in Brussels, with striker Romelu Lukaku scoring two of the goals to pass 50 in internationals.
The Belgians consolidated their place at the summit of Group I and guaranteed a top-two finish with three qualifiers to spare. Their neighbors didn't have it so easy, with the Netherlands' scoring three goals from the 80th minute to come from behind and beat Northern Ireland 3-1 in the Dutch stronghold of Rotterdam. Memphis Depay scored two of those late goals.
It left the two teams in a three-way tie on 12 points with Germany in Group C. The Northern Irish have played one game more, though, and their remaining two qualifiers are against the Dutch and the Germans.
Croatia and Poland both won 3-0, against Hungary and Latvia respectively, to stay in control of their groups. RAMPANT BELGIUM Belgium has now won an international game by a nine-goal margin on four occasions, with San Marino on the receiving end of two of those thrashings. In 2001, it lost 10-1 in this fixture.
Double figures looked well within reach of the Belgians after they scored six goals in the final 17 minutes of the first half, with Nacer Chadli, Toby Alderweireld and Youri Tielemans joining Lukaku in finding the back of the net. There was also an own-goal from Cristian Brolli.
The other three goals came from the 79th minute, through Christian Benteke, Yari Verschaeren and Timothy Castagne. "Nine-nil is a good result," said Lukaku, who now has a record-extending 51 goals for Belgium, "but we would have loved to have scored one more and broken that all-time record."
Russia looks almost certain to join Belgium in advancing from the group after beating Scotland 4-0 at home to stay eight points clear of Cyprus in second place. Russia is away to Cyprus on Sunday, and needs only a point to qualify.
LEAVING IT LATE With the Dutch trailing 1-0 heading into the final 10 minutes, it looked as though they might need a back-door route to Euro 2020 via the playoffs. A defeat would have left them six points adrift of Northern Ireland but Ronald Koeman's team finally converted one of their chances when Depay scored in the 80th to cancel out Josh Magennis' opener five minutes earlier.
Luuk de Jong and Depay — following a surging run by Frenkie de Jong — added goals in injury time to seal victory for the Netherlands, who have now won 17 matches in a row at Feyenoord's De Kuip stadium in Rotterdam since drawing 0-0 with Romania in March 2007.
"We are devastated with the nature of the defeat," said Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill, whose team went from being favorites to automatically qualify to the outsiders in the space of about 10 minutes.
Belarus drew 0-0 with Estonia in the group's other game. Both teams are out of contention. LEWANDOWSKI HAT TRICK Robert Lewandowsi moved onto 60 international goals by scoring his sixth hat trick for Poland in its 3-0 win in Latvia.
The Bayern Munich striker netted twice in the opening 13 minutes before adding a third in the 76th. Austria stayed three points behind Poland in Group G by coming from behind to beat Israel 3-1. North Macedonia beat Slovenia 2-1 and is a further two points in third place.
CROATIA IN COMMAND Croatia, the World Cup semifinalist last year, opened up a three-point lead in Group E by beating Hungary 3-0 thanks to a fifth-minute opener by Luka Modric and two goals by Bruno Petkovic.
Second-place Slovakia was held to a 1-1 draw at home to Wales, which is fourth — three points behind its opponent — but has a game in hand over all the teams above them. The top two in each of the 10 groups qualify for the 24-team Euro 2020, which is being played in 12 countries with no automatic places for hosts. The other four qualifiers will come through four tiers of playoffs in March.
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