Nations League round-up: Arnautovic sinks Northern Ireland

England and Croatia play out closed-door stalemate as Lukaku brace sees off Swiss

 

Austria 1 Northern Ireland 0

Northern Ireland’s Nations League worries deepened as Austria’s Marko Arnautovic condemned them to a 1-0 defeat in Vienna.

The West Ham striker scored the only goal in the 71st minute to leave Michael O’Neill’s men without a point from their opening two matches in League B’s Group 3.

With the risk of relegation growing, they now need to win Monday’s match against Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo to keep their fate in their own hands.

Arnautovic, a constant thorn in the Northern Ireland defence, sprung the offside trap to get on to Peter Zulj’s pass before slotting the ball past Bailey Peacock-Farrell to settle a close contest.

Croatia 0 England 0

England should have secured their first Nations League victory after Gareth Southgate’s men dealt with the quirks of playing behind closed doors and had the best chances against Croatia.

Just 93 days after the Three Lions lost to Zlatko Dalic’s men in the World Cup semi-finals, the countries met in surroundings that could scarcely have been more different to July’s huge encounter at the packed Luzhniki.

The virtually-empty Stadion HNK Rijeka hosted England’s first-ever match behind closed doors as Croatia completed a ground ban imposed by Uefa for having a swastika on the pitch during a Euro 2016 qualifier against Italy.

Eric Dier and Harry Kane hit the woodwork on a night when Marcus Rashford wasted two great chances, meaning the opportunity to exact World Cup revenge went begging as the Group A4 encounter ended 0-0 on a strange night for all involved.

Every shout, kick and challenge was audible in the match played out in front of a few hundred officials and journalists. You could even hear the beeping of an ambulance reversing behind one of the goals.

There were regular, distant cries from a small group of hardy England fans that had found a vantage point high above one of the stands, but those efforts were rewarded with a poor first half in which Dier hit the post late on.

England improved after the break as Kane hit the woodwork before Rashford missed two fine chances, while Ante Rebic curled just wide for a Croatia side that had lost their Nations League opener 6-0 in Spain.

Southgate’s men face their own Spanish test on Monday without the suspended Jordan Henderson and John Stones, but there are certainly promising moments to build on.

Belgium 2 Switzerland 1

Romelu Lukaku scored twice to earn Belgium a 2-1 victory over Switzerland in the Nations League on Friday, lifting the mood in the country after a week marred by match-fixing allegations.

Belgium’s second win in the group means they have won 11 of their last 12 matches, the only blemish being the World Cup semi-final defeat by France in July.

Lukaku broke the deadlock just before the hour mark, finding himself unmarked on the right as Thomas Meunier set him up for a left-foot shot that squeezed under the body of Swiss goalkeeper Yann Sommer.

Romelu Lukaku’s brace helped Belgium to a 2-1 win over Switzerland. Photograph: Francois Lenoir/Reuters
Romelu Lukaku’s brace helped Belgium to a 2-1 win over Switzerland. Photograph: Francois Lenoir/Reuters

But the Belgian defence were caught ball watching with about 15 minutes left as Xherdan Shaqiri’s free kick was headed back into the danger zone by Nico Elvedi and finished off from close range by substitute Mario Gavranovic.

Belgium defender Vincent Kompany went close with a headed opportunity from a corner and Lukaku blasted over from close range after being set up by substitute Nacer Chadli.

But the Manchester United striker made amends with the 84th- minute winner at the end of a flowing move which involved captain Eden Hazard and a deft pass from Dries Mertens to set Lukaku up for another left-foot finish.

Lukaku’s double, which lifted him to 45 goals in 78 internationals, ensured a bright end to a bad week for Belgian football in which 19 people, including two referees, soccer agents and the coach of champions Club Brugge, were charged on Friday with fraud or match-fixing.

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