Spain, Serbia and Croatia are heading to next year’s World Cup. Sweden, Portugal and Russia are not – not yet anyway.
Aleksandar Mitrovic’s 90th-minute header left Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal stunned in a 2-1 victory for Serbia in Lisbon, which gave Serbia an automatic World Cup qualifying berth in the Qatar. Portugal still have a chance to qualify, but they must navigate a four-team range in the playoffs in March.
All the teams that booked a place for the World Cup in Europe on Sunday did so with spectacular late goals.
Spain only needed a draw in their last game against Sweden to qualify, but Álvaro Morata secured in the 86th minute with the lone goal of the 1-0 victory to leave hopes Swedish veteran Zlatan Ibrahimovic from another World Cup appearance based on the playoffs.
Croatia besieged Russia’s goal on soggy ground that quickly turned into swamp, and were ultimately rewarded when a Russian defender scored an own goal in the 81st minute, enough for a 1- win. 0.
Russia will also head to the playoffs, which kick off on March 24 and divide 12 teams – 10 group finalists and two with strong Nations League records – into three four-team installments. Each slice has a place for the World Cup. The draw takes place on November 26 in Zurich.
Portugal were in a strong position when Renato Sanches scored the opening goal after just two minutes against Serbia, but Dusan Tadic kept Serbia in the game with a 33rd equalizer. Mitrovic’s late header silenced the crowd and shocked Portuguese players, including Ronaldo, who sat on the pitch at the final whistle.
“It was an incredible game, fully deserved,” said Mitrovic. “I think we deserved to win the game and to be in Qatar.”
Beating Portugal for the first time marks a turning point after Serbia failed to qualify for the European Championship.
There is a positive point for Portugal. His relatively strong record in the squad means he will be one of the seeded teams for the playoffs in March and draw a home draw for the single bracket semi-final game. Portugal last missed a World Cup in 1998.
Ireland won 3-0 over Luxembourg in the other Group A game.
Substitute Morata scored the game-winning goal for Spain after Dani Olmo’s long-range shot bounced off the post to send Spain to their 12th consecutive World Cup.
At 40, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was trying to reach his first World Cup since 2006 with Sweden – he was not part of the squad in 2018 – but couldn’t change the game after coming off the bench at the 74th.
That ended a campaign that seemed to be under control for Sweden ahead of a shock 2-0 loss to Georgia on Thursday.
In Athens, already eliminated, Greece and Kosovo drew 1-1.
2018 World Cup finalist Croatia had to brave 2018 host team Russia and the weather to secure their spot at next year’s tournament.
In pouring rain on a waterlogged pitch that forced Croatia to change their game plan to long shots and crosses, a home goal from Russian defender Fedor Kudriashov gave Croatia a victory and a place. in Qatar as the group winner.
Croatia dominated the game against a Russian side for which a draw would have been enough to finish first, but poor shots and a few solid saves from goalkeeper Matvey Safonov made for a tense end of the game. Russia will be seeded in the playoffs.
Slovakia, third, won 6-0 against Malta thanks to a hat trick from attacking midfielder Ondrej Duda. Slovenia defeated Cyprus 2-1.
On a night of drama for the other major European teams, Germany remained calm in a straight win. Germany qualified last month and spent this week increasing their already impressive goal difference to +32, the best in European qualifying so far.
With the exception of Hansi Flick’s record of victories as Germany coach, there was not much to do with the 4-1 win over Armenia, a team that only had the smallest mathematical chance of qualifying for the playoffs. Two goals from Ilkay Gundogan helped Flick to his seventh victory in seven games at the head.
North Macedonia remain in contention to reach a World Cup for the first time after beating Iceland 3-1 to secure a playoff spot. Eljif Elmas has scored twice for his side, which will be seedless. Romania beat Liechtenstein 2-0 but missed out on the qualifiers due to the victory of North Macedonia.
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