Serbia clinched an automatic berth in the 2022 World Cup finals after a 90th-minute header by halftime substitute Aleksandar Mitrovic gave them a comeback 2-1 win over Portugal in their Group A qualifier on Sunday.
The result lifted Serbia into top spot on 20 points, three more than second-placed Portugal who only needed a draw to finish top on goal difference and qualify but will now head into the March playoffs.
Mitrovic beat home goalkeeper Rui Patricio with a downward header at the far post to spark wild celebrations on Serbia’s bench after visiting captain Dusan Tadic had cancelled out an early Renato Sanches opener for Portugal.
Jubilant fans thronged central Belgrade, bringing traffic at the main Republic Square to a halt as they waved Serbian flags and hooted their car horns.
With Portugal’s talismanic captain Cristiano Ronaldo stifled, they produced little up front and midfielder Joao Palhinha conceded the home side were below par.
“We have to take responsibility because we had a poor game,” he told Portugal’s RTP television.
“We just defended in the second half. Credit to Serbia, they played very well but we had the capacity to be on top.
“Everyone in the dressing room is disappointed but we have to look ahead to the playoffs now because we are more than good enough to be in the World Cup.
“You can’t win all the time. Difficulties are part of life and this feeling should give us more strength.”
The home side made a dream start in the second minute after Bernardo Silva robbed Nemanja Gudelj of the ball in the danger zone and fed Sanches, who drove it past goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic from 15 metres.
Unfazed by falling behind, the visitors came close when Dusan Vlahovic, preferred to Mitrovic as the lone striker, hit the post before Patricio gifted Serbia the equaliser.
A seemingly innocuous raid ended with Tadic taking a deflected shot from 20 metres which glided over Patricio’s fingertips over the line.
More poor goalkeeping presented Portugal with a gilt-edged chance to retake the lead on the stroke of halftime as Rajkovic spilled the ball, but Joao Moutinho’s shot was blocked on the line by Nikola Milenkovic.
Serbia coach Dragan Stojkovic threw Mitrovic on for Gudelj and his gamble to deploy an extra forward for a defensive midfielder paid off as the Fulham striker, his country’s all-time top scorer with 44 goals in 69 appearances, delivered.
It seemed Portugal would hang on after Mitrovic headed inches wide in the 85th minute but the striker had the last laugh as he pulled away from his markers at the death to head home after Tadic’s cross from the right.
Mitrovic said Serbia’s confidence ahead of the game was vindicated by a bold performance.
“We came here to play football and having been the better side, we earned it all,” he told Serbia’s Nova television.
“We are reaping the rewards of hard work and the belief that we would be able to defy the odds and beat Portugal. We are overjoyed, for our country and the people first and foremost.”
Stojkovic added: “We deserved to win tonight as the lads showed so much character. This is a massive accomplishment for Serbian football.
“The team showed maturity and composure under the most intense pressure and I would have said the same thing if it had stayed 1-1 and we got confined to the playoffs.”
Spain’s Morata grabs late winner to seal World Cup spot
Spain’s Alvaro Morata came off the bench to strike a late winner as they qualified for next year’s World Cup finals in Qatar by beating stubborn visitors Sweden 1-0 in a tense clash on Sunday.
Morata struck in the 86th minute when he cleverly lifted the ball over Sweden’s Robin Olsen after Dani Olmo’s fierce drive was pushed onto the post by the keeper and fell into his path.
Spain, who won the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, finished top of Group B with 19 points, four ahead of the second-placed Swedes who could still qualify through the playoffs in March.
“I felt more pressure now then in the Euros,” said Spain manager Luis Enrique, whose side lost to eventual winners Italy on penalties in this year’s European Championship semi-finals.
“We tried to work a lot on the mental side, always trying to keep it positive and the players responded well. I’m so proud of them and how they responded.”
Spain, playing in front of 52,000 fans in the sold-out La Cartuja stadium, had never lost a home game in World Cup qualifiers and kept their record intact in Seville.
They had only ever lost four of 52 games in the city.
“We knew it was a life and death situation and we wanted to qualify at any cost. Nobody said it was going to be easy and I’m happy for our people,” Sergio Busquets told reporters.
It was a nervous occasion and although Spain dominated play, the Swedes created the best opportunities through the dangerous Emil Forsberg and Alexander Isak on the counter-attack.
Forsberg almost scored twice in the first half. First, he shot just past the upright and then he was left unmarked at the far post to meet Ludwig Augustinsson’s cross with a volley that licked Unai Simon’s right-hand post before going wide.
“It feels sour. I think we played a good first half and created chances, but the ball did not want to go in. It was not our day.” Forsberg told reporters.
After playing the full 90 minutes in Sweden’s 2-0 loss to Georgia on Thursday, Zlatan Ibrahimovic started on the bench and made little impact when he came on for the last 20 minutes.
The game was heading for a draw, which would have been enough take Spain to the finals, when Olsen tipped Olmo’s strike against the woodwork before it fell to substitute Morata, who was winning his 50th cap, and he calmly put the ball in net.
It will be Spain’s 16th appearance, and 12th in a row, in 22 World Cups. The last time they failed to qualify was in 1974.
Gundogan scores twice in Germany’s 4-1 win over Armenia
Germany midfielder Ilkay Gundogan scored twice in their 4-1 World Cup qualifying victory over Armenia on Sunday to finish top of Group J with their seventh straight win under coach Hansi Flick.
Already-qualified Germany, missing a dozen players through injury, suspension and COVID-19 quarantine and having made six changes to the team that beat Liechtenstein 9-0 on Thursday, earned their ninth win in 10 qualifiers to finish in top spot on 27 points. North Macedonia are in second place on 18.
The visitors got off to a strong start and Kai Havertz hit the post in the fifth minute. He did it better 10 minutes later turning in a Thomas Mueller cutback with a deft touch.
The Germans had several good chances to score again but had to wait until first half stoppage time when Gundogan scored with a penalty.
The Manchester City midfielder bagged his 13th international goal five minutes after the restart when Armenia keeper Stanislav Buchnev let the German’s weak shot slip through his hands.
The hosts briefly pulled a goal back with Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s 59th minute penalty but Germany restored their three-goal advantage five minutes later when Jonas Hofmann pounced on a defensive to charge into the box and slot in.
North Macedonia clinch World Cup playoff berth with Iceland win
North Macedonia sealed a World Cup qualifying play-off spot with a 3-1 home win over Iceland on Sunday that secured them the runners-up spot in Group J, with midfielder Eljif Elmas scoring twice in the second half.
The North Macedonians finished their qualifying campaign on 18 points from 10 games, one ahead of third-placed Romania who ground out a 2-0 win in Lichtenstein.
Group winners Germany (27 points), who had earlier clinched automatic qualification for next year’s tournament in Qatar, wrapped up their campaign with a 4-1 win at Armenia.
Ezgjan Alioski was instrumental as he scored the home side’s seventh-minute opener in Skopje and had a hand in the second after Jon Thorsteinsson had levelled for Iceland.
Alioski fired North Macedonia ahead with a fierce shot from a tight angle which shaved the inside of the near post after he was put through by Aleksandar Trajkovski, as the hosts piled the pressure on in the first half.
Forward Darko Churlinov had a goal scrapped for a marginal offside for North Macedonia in the 40th minute after a VAR check, and the technology gave the visitors a break shortly after the restart.
Thorsteinsson’s goal stood as he tapped the ball in from close range after a long ball into the area was headed into his path by Birkir Bjarnason, forcing the home side to throw men forward again.
They got their reward in the 65th minute, when Elmas bundled the ball in from a goal-mouth scramble after Iceland goalkeeper Elias Rafn Olafsson parried Alioski’s deflected shot and the visiting defence failed to clear the ball.
Elmas sent the vocal home crowd into raptures five minutes before the end, rifling in a left-footed shot off the post after Iceland had Isak Johannesson sent off for a second yellow card in the 79th minute.
North Macedonia are in contention to reach their second successive major tournament as an independent nation, having made their maiden appearance at Euro 2020.
Late Russia own goal sends Croatia to World Cup finals
Croatia clinched an automatic berth in next year’s World Cup finals in dramatic fashion as a late Fedor Kudryashov own goal gave them a 1-0 home win over Russia in their crunch Group D qualifier on Sunday.
Croatia, the 2018 World Cup runners-up, jumped above Russia to top the standings on 23 points from 10 games, one more than the second-placed Russians who will head into the March playoffs.
Croatia dominated a match played in driving rain but a string of good saves by visiting goalkeeper Matvei Safonov and a waterlogged pitch kept them at bay before Kudryashov’s clumsy 80th-minute touch delighted the home fans.
The home team’s coach Zlatko Dalic, who broke down in tears after the game as he came under pressure from fans and media during Croatia’s patchy qualifying campaign, praised his players and the supporters.
“It’s a relief, it was a titanic tussle and I want to congratulate all the players who took part in these qualifiers,” Dalic told a news conference.
“A big thanks to the fans too, from the bottom of my heart. You’re our pride and energy. Hence the tears, I don’t cry very often but this victory was one of the greatest sporting moments of my life.
“Every game in charge is sacred to me and what we achieved here today is priceless. Now we have a year to prepare and improve for the World Cup in Qatar.”
Needing a draw to qualify, the Russians defended with everyone behind the ball and soaked up intense pressure as the Croatians besieged their goal but failed to create clear-cut chances.
Andrej Kramaric headed straight at Safonov in the ninth minute before Marcelo Brozovic unleashed two long-range efforts, one sailing inches wide and the other drawing an acrobatic save from the visiting keeper.
Safonov kept out a close-range Mario Pasalic header with a superb stop in the 47th minute and the Russians appeared to be home and dry before they were undone by Kudryashov’s error.
With waves of Croatian attacks losing momentum on a difficult pitch, left back Borna Sosa floated in a hopeful cross from the left and Kudryashov bundled the ball into his own net after it bounced awkwardly in front of him.
Russia missed their only chance to salvage the game from their first fluent move in stoppage time, Vyacheslav Karavaev firing over the bar from 18 metres.
Luka Modric said Croatia deserved their luck after keeping Russia on the back foot throughout.
“It was a difficult match as we expected but we played a great game. We were a bit lucky with the goal but we earned it because of how we pressed. We were patient and we kept believing until the end,” he said.
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