Spain, Portugal and Croatia all put themselves one game away from securing World Cup qualification, while Sweden’s hopes took a heavy blow with a surprising loss Thursday.
Spain beat Greece 1-0 thanks to Pablo Sarabia’s penalty to overtake Sweden, which slipped to a 2-0 loss at already-eliminated Georgia. Spain hosts Sweden on Sunday in one of three winner-takes-all matches to decide World Cup places.
Another decisive fixture pits Portugal against Serbia after a frustrating 0-0 away draw for Cristiano Ronaldo’s team against Ireland. Croatia and Russia also face off for a spot in Qatar after each had a big win Thursday.
Only group winners qualify automatically, and second-place teams head to the playoffs along with two teams selected on their record in the Nations League. The 12 teams in the playoffs will be fighting for three places at next year’s World Cup in Qatar in brackets of four teams.
Portugal’s goalless draw in Dublin was less than impressive, but it was enough.
The point Portugal earned against Ireland saw it ease ahead of group rival Serbia in the standings on goal difference. That means a draw will be enough for Portugal to qualify automatically when it hosts Serbia in Lisbon on Sunday. They drew 2-2 in their earlier game in the qualifying cycle.
It was a bittersweet game for veteran defender Pepe, who became the oldest player to start a game for Portugal at 38 years old, but was sent off for two bookings and will be suspended for the crucial game against Serbia.
Next year’s World Cup host Qatar was beaten 4-0 by Serbia in a friendly for its seventh winless game in a row and third consecutive game without scoring.
Qatar is playing home-and-away friendlies against the teams from Group A alongside the qualifying tournament, without much success. If Qatar’s results were included in the group table, it would rank fifth of the six teams, above only Azerbaijan, with the group’s worst defensive record with 20 goals conceded.
Sweden had its fate in its own hands in qualifying, and let it slip.
Twenty-year-old winger Khvicha Kvaratskhelia of Rubin Kazan may be little known outside of the Russian league where he usually plays, but he had a big impact with two second-half goals to surprise Sweden.
That gave Spain the chance to overtake Sweden and take the advantage ahead of the decisive game against the Swedes on Sunday.
Spain had to work hard in its 1-0 win over Greece, sealed with a penalty, but moved one point ahead of Sweden. Spain only has to avoid defeat against Sweden in Seville. They drew 0-0 in the same city this year at the European Championships.
The defeat to Spain ensured Greece can’t qualify.
Russia and Croatia each won big against overmatched opponents in games which were merely a warm-up for their qualifying decider. Croatia hosts Russia on Sunday and the winner will qualify for the World Cup automatically, with Russia going through if it’s a draw.
Russia laid down a marker with a 6-0 demolition of Cyprus and Croatia responded with a 7-1 hammering of Malta with two goals from Lovro Majer. Malta’s goal also came from a Croatia player, as Marcelo Brozovic scored into his own net to make it 2-1 in the first half.
If 2018 World Cup runner-up Croatia is to qualify automatically for next year’s tournament in Qatar, it will need to be the first team to beat Russia under new coach Valery Karpin. His team has conceded just once in six games under Karpin.
Germany has already qualified for the World Cup and cruised to a 9-0 win against Liechtenstein after early concerns for midfielder Leon Goretzka when he was struck in the head and neck by an opponent’s boot.
Goretzka was fine, and the incident led to an early red card for Liechtenstein, and a penalty to start the scoring. Leroy Sane and Thomas Muller finished with two goals each and there were two own-goals.
North Macedonia leads the race for a playoff spot after beating Armenia 5-0 and will secure second place with a win over Iceland on Sunday. Romania’s qualifying hopes took a hit with a 0-0 draw against Iceland.
This story has been corrected to show that Marcelo Brozovic, not Andrej Kramaric, scored Croatia’s own goal.
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