Posted: Saturday September 8, 2012 6:59PM ; Updated: Saturday September 8, 2012 7:01PM
Tom Dart
Tom Dart>INSIDE SOCCER

England's romp gets World Cup qualifiers underway

Story Highlights

Even at less-than-normal strength, England's lineup was still too much for Moldova

A fragile France squad posted a workmanlike -- but crucial -- victory over Finland

The Netherlands handled Turkey 2-0, but the performance was less than impressive

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Theo Walcott, James Milner
Theo Walcott and James Milner celebrate England's successful World Cup qualifying opener.
Vadim Ghirda/AP

The long road to Brazil 2014 began Friday for 44 European teams. Reigning World Cup champion Spain does not begin its qualification campaign until Tuesday's away game against Georgia, but plenty of the continent's powerhouses were in action and there were two close matches Saturday.

ENGLAND

The previous time England scored five goals in an away match was the famous 5-1 win over Germany in 2001. That proved a false dawn, as the following year's World Cup brought a standard-issue quarterfinal defeat.

England doesn't really do dawns any more: the sun's not visible because the sky seems endlessly overcast, no matter who's coaching or playing. Still, Friday's 5-0 victory over Moldova in Chisinau was an impeccable start to qualifying for Roy Hodgson.

While the Fifa rankings often seem like a bizarre Swiss comedy routine (England, third-best team in the world?), Moldova's position at 141st out of 206, below the likes of Tahiti and Rwanda, did not seem far askew.

James Milner scored England's fourth after 74 minutes and it was so simple he barely celebrated, even though it was his first goal on his 32nd appearance. Still, there was much to be admired in the clinical efficiency of England's display, the way that the team made a routine match actually seem routine. It hasn't always been that way.

And the scoreline was gaudy in an era when the worst nations typically make it hard for superior opponents by defending in depth. Even Germany only beat the Faroe Islands 3-0 at home Friday.

A below-strength lineup offered two main talking points: the atavistic inclusion of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard together and a start for Manchester United attacking midfielder Tom Cleverley in the iconic number 10 shirt, the number sported by Geoff Hurst in the 1966 World Cup.

After a decade or so of trying and failing, can thirtysomethings Lampard and Gerrard finally play well together? Well, they can against Moldova, at least.

Neat and tidy as a suburban front lawn, Cleverley did enough in his second England game to merit another go against Ukraine at Wembley on Tuesday as Group H continues. Better opponents who will give us a better idea of England's true caliber. Ukraine may test a defense missing the injured Ashley Cole and possibly without John Terry, who picked up an ankle problem during the match.

FRANCE

Didier Deschamps took charge of France after Euro 2012 knowing that in all probability he is playing for second place in Group I and a play-off. Fifa's seeding process generally makes it easy for all the major nations (with their big and lucrative television audiences) to qualify, but France finds itself in a five-team mini-league with Spain, the world and European champion.

With strong results against the lesser nations vital, Deschamps could not afford a false start, and there was none as three points was banked in a workmanlike win over Finland.

Impressive for Arsenal against Liverpool last weekend, Abou Diaby continued his renaissance by scoring the only goal in Helsinki. The midfielder missed most of last season through injury and hadn't turned out in a competitive game for his country since June last year.

With a regular slot in Arsenal's line-up available now that Alex Song has joined Barcelona, if he stays fit -- that's a Texas-sized "if" -- this could be a big season for the 26-year-old.

Deschamps told reporters after the game that Diaby is a "complete midfielder" but in a nod to his injury history the manager was quoted in L'Equipe as saying that he would wait and see how the player recovers before deciding whether to start him on Tuesday against Belarus.

No fitness concerns surround Hugo Lloris. But if the goalkeeper cannot elbow his way into the Tottenham Hotspur starting lineup, the manager may face a selection dilemma over his captain before long.

France's past three tournaments were spoiled by more bad apples than a disease-stricken orchard, so Deschamps will know that any personnel issues must be handled with the utmost sensitivity in order to preserve morale. France is fragile and while its talent is not in question, its temperament still is. But even the team's best will probably not be enough to win the group. Hard to say whether that eases the pressure or increases it.

HOLLAND

Two years after his Netherlands side lost to Spain after extra time in the World Cup Final, Bert van Marwijk left his job when the team failed to reach the knockout phase of Euro 2012. His replacement also knows how swiftly success can turn sour.

Louis van Gaal was Germany's coach of the year in 2009-10 after winning the German league and Cup and reaching the Champions League final with Bayern Munich. The club fired him less than a year later.

With Van Gaal back for a second spell, a 2-0 win over Turkey in Amsterdam Friday provided the requisite win but not the level of performance that will be necessary to restore the damage done to confidence and credibility in the space of just three feckless fixtures last June.

Former captain Mark van Bommel has retired from international soccer and van Gaal left out Nigel De Jong, so the absence of that pair of human threshing machines should reduce the card count. Rafael van der Vaart was also not picked. Arjen Robben featured on the left wing not the right and pre-game speculation that Robin van Persie would be on the bench proved joyously wrong.

As he has for Manchester United, Van Persie hauled his team out of a stressful situation with a moment of individual excellence. Friday it was the 15th-minute header to give the Netherlands a lead that merited the "undeserved" tag throughout the first half. Like Cristiano Ronaldo, Van Persie is a forward as precise with his head as with his feet.

Hamit Altintop threatened an equalizer near the hour mark, then the Dutch raised their game and relative newbie Luciano Narsingh coated the scoreline with a gloss it hardly deserved via a cute finish on a break-away in stoppage-time. Next up in Group D for Van Gaal is a trip to Hungary on Tuesday.

ITALY

The Italians were exceptional in qualifying for Euro 2012, winning their group by 10 points and conceding only twice in ten fixtures. But that's a defensive tally they have tied after just one match of their Brazil 2014 campaign. And it could have been worse, as Italy was happy to leave Sofia with a 2-2 draw Friday.

An error by goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon helped Bulgaria take the lead, and though Pablo Osvaldo scored his first international goals to give Italy the advantage at halftime, Georgi Milanov equalized after 66 minutes and the home team had late chances for a shock victory.

Not a great Group B beginning for the Euro 2012 runners-up, who failed to reprise the summer's winning formula. "We lacked pace and rhythm," coach Cesare Prandelli said, according to The Associated Press. "We were missing a link man. At the Euros we stole the ball and counter-attacked. We didn't do that tonight."

It can't have helped that Mario Balotelli was absent having undergone eye surgery. But Italy should collect a win and a clean sheet against Malta in Modena on Tuesday. Even at this early stage it's clear that anything less than victory is potentially a very damaging outcome.

SATURDAY

There were only two fixtures on Saturday and both ended in goalless draws. Scotland regretted an off-day for striker Kenny Miller as they tied with Serbia in Glasgow in Group A, while Czech Republic and Denmark each took a point in Copenhagen in Group B.

The latter match showcased two perky second-tier nations who went home after Euro 2012 with reputations enhanced. Denmark beat the Netherlands, which seemed stunning at the time - even if the impact was lessened by subsequent matches that made it clear the Dutch were in disarray.

The Czechs had attracted scant attention in the build-up but overachieved by topping their group ahead of Russia before losing to Portugal in the quarter-finals.

Saturday's draw only increases the sense that Group B will prove one of the most intriguing mini-leagues. Malta and Armenia look like also-rans but first and second place should be a tight fight between Bulgaria, Italy, Czech Republic and Denmark.

Scotland has not played in a major tournament since the 1998 World Cup and few would bet on Craig Levein's pedestrian side reaching the next one. Not in a group also containing the perennially-good Croatia and a young Belgium team that is generating plenty of buzz. The fresh hope of a new season can quickly be squashed by the heavy weight of past disappointments.

 
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