By Andrew Warshaw
November 13 – Elation for some, heartbreak for others. The race for places at next year’s delayed Euro 2020 reached feverish excitement Thursday night as the final four spots were decided.
When everyone came up for air, Scotland, Hungary, Slovakia and North Macedonia were celebrating at the end, in contrast to the gut-wrenching disappointment of Serbia, Iceland, Northern Ireland and Georgia.
Goalkeeper David Marshall was Scotland’s penalty shootout hero against Serbia following a 1-1 draw, ending their tortuous 22-year wait to reach a major tournament. Just as in the playoff semi-final against Israel, the Scots had to rely on spotkicks in Belgrade but again emerged victorious as they converted all five.
Serbia saved their most reliable marksman till last but Marshall, who had saved his team with a world-class fingertip stop in extra time, brilliantly parried Fulham striker Aleksandar Mitrovic’s effort. It was no more than the Scots deserved after dominating much of the contest though it was nail-biting stuff after Luka Jovic equalised for the Serbians in the 90th minute to force extra time.
Scotland will join the 24-nation tournament’s Group D alongside England, the Czech Republic and 2018 World Cup runners-up Croatia, with matches in that pool to be played at Wembley and Hampden Park.
In contrast, the Serbian players, who tried to get the referee to order a retake of Mitrovic’s final pernalty, missed a golden opportunity to reach their first European Championship finals as an independent nation.
A win by Northern Ireland would have meant all four British nations competing at next summer’s pan-European competition but they were undone by Slovakia in Belfast, again after extra time.
The hosts were given a lifeline when Milan Skriniar turned the ball into his own net with just three minutes remaining to cancel out Slovakia’s opener. But just when they looked the most likely team to snatch a winner, Northern Ireland conceded in the 110th minute, allowing Slovakia to join a group including Spain, Sweden and Poland next summer.
North Macedonia qualified for the first-ever major tournament in their 27-year history when veteran 37-year-old forward Goran Pandev, his country’s most capped player and all-time leading scorer, gave them a 1-0 win away to Georgia.
UEFA had reserved a spot at the Euros for the continent’s minnows and North Macedonia took full advantage, qualifying through the Nations League. Currently ranked 65 in the world, they join Finland as the tournament’s only newcomers.
Hungary joined Scotland as arguably the biggest playoff winners because they, like the Scots, are among the 12 host nations scattered across Europe and now get two home games in the group stage next June.
But spare a thought for Hungary’s vanquished opponents, Iceland, who were seconds away from qualifying, only to concede twice right at the death. First Hungary scored a last-gasp equaliser from Loic Nego, then a stoppage-time winner by Dominik Szoboszlai, and will join heavyweights Portugal, France and Germany in Group F.
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