Unsung Iceland and Wales took big steps toward qualifying for the European Championships on Thursday and they don’t intend to take the long road to the expanded 24-team tournament just because there are more ways to qualify.
Iceland stunned 10-man Netherlands 1-0 in Amsterdam and leads Group A, while Gareth Bale scored a late goal for Wales in a 1-0 victory in Cyprus to give the British squad a three-point lead over Belgium atop Group B.
Iceland has never qualified for a major tournament, while Wales’ only appearance came at the 1958 World Cup.
“We know what we have to do,” Bale said. “We are a strong team, we are together. We know what our capabilities are. We have earned the right to be in this position.”
Group B rivals Belgium came from behind to beat Bosnia and Herzegovina. Marouane Fellaini, Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard gave Belgium a 3-1 victory over Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Meanwhile, Graziano Pelle saved Italy from embarrassment against Malta again, securing a 1-0 win against the 160th-ranked opponent to move the Azzurri in command of Group H.
Pelle also scored in a 1-0 win at Malta in October.
“That’s my job to score,” he said. “It’s never easy. Football is very balanced these days.”
The top two finishers from the nine groups qualify automatically for next year’s tournament in France.
The best third-placed team also qualifies automatically, and eight more teams can qualify through a playoff.