LONDON: Spain, Serbia and Croatia are heading to next year’s World Cup. Sweden, Portugal and Russia aren’t — not yet, anyway.
Aleksandar Mitrovic’s 90th-minute header left Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal stunned in a 2-1 win for Serbia in Lisbon, which gave Serbia an automatic qualifying spot at the World Cup in Qatar. Portugal still have a chance to qualify, but it must navigate a four-team bracket in the playoffs in March.
All of the teams which booked a World Cup place in Europe on Sunday did so with dramatic late goals.
Spain only needed a draw in their last game against Sweden to qualify, but Alvaro Morata made sure in the 86th minute with the only goal in a 1-0 win to leave veteran Sweden star Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s hopes of another World Cup appearance depending on the playoffs.
Croatia laid siege to Russia’s goal on a water-logged field quickly turning into a swamp, and were finally rewarded when a Russian defender scored an 81st-minute own-goal, enough for a 1-0 win.
Russia, too, head to the playoffs, which start on March 24 and will sort 12 teams — 10 group runner-ups and two with strong records from the Nations League — into three brackets of four teams. Each bracket has one World Cup place. The draw takes place on Nov 26 in Zurich.
Ronaldo already holds the record of playing in five European Championships and looked well on course for another milestone as Portugal stormed out of the blocks to open the scoring after just two minutes through Renato Sanches.
However, Serbia bounced back to dominate the remainder of the first half and deservedly levelled in the 33rd when Dusan Tadic’s strike squeezed in off the post in the 33rd after Dusan Vlahovic had hit the woodwork.
Ronaldo was kept quiet as another chance to score his 800th career goal came and went.
Instead it was Aleksandar Mitrovic who grabbed the vital goal as stoppage time approached.
Just over a year ago, Mitrovic was the villain for his country as he was the only player to fail to score in a penalty shootout against Scotland that saw Serbia miss out on Euro 2020.
However, the Fulham striker made amends in dramatic fashion when he steered in Tadic’s header at the back post.
“It was an amazing game,” said Mitrovic. “We were the better team today in every aspect of the game.”
There’s one positive for Portugal. Their comparatively strong record in Group ‘A’ means they will be one of the seeded teams for the playoffs in March and will get a home draw for the single-leg bracket semi-final game. Portugal last missed a World Cup in 1998.
“We must apologise to the Portuguese but my team will be at the World Cup, that’s guaranteed,” said defiant Portugal coach Fernando Santos. “We will have to prepare well to beat our opponents in March and to get to Qatar. But I always trust my players.”
Spain made sure they avoided the playoffs as Alvaro Morata’s goal four minutes from time ended Sweden’s resistance in Seville.
The Swedes’ shock 2-0 defeat to Kazakhstan on Thursday had handed Spain pole position in Group ‘B’, meaning La Roja just needed a point to qualify.
Luis Enrique’s men were grateful for that reprieve as for a long time a repeat of the stalemate between the sides when they met in the group stages of Euro 2020 was on the cards.
Morata was the fall guy that night for missing a host of chances, but made his mark off the bench with a calm finish after Robin Olsen had turned Dani Olmo’s blistering shot onto the bar.
“To be honest, it is a huge weight off my shoulders,” said Luis Enrique. “I felt much more pressure in these games when people think it is easy to get a result than in the Euro or the Nations League.”
The runners-up from the 2018 World Cup, Croatia, had to brave 2018 hosts Russia and the weather to book their place at next year’s tournament.
In driving rain on a waterlogged pitch which forced Croatia to switch its game plan to long shots and crosses, an own-goal from Russian defender Fedor Kudriashov handed Croatia a win and a place in Qatar as Group ‘H’ winners.
Croatia dominated the game against a Russian team for which a draw would have been enough to finish first, but poor shooting and some solid saves from goalkeeper Matvey Safonov made for a tense finish. Russia will be seeded in the playoffs.
“It was a difficult match from the beginning because of the rain. We never gave up, we were patient and I think we won deservedly. We are the best team in this group,” said Croatia captain Luka Modric.
Germany had long since booked their place in Qatar, but rounded off their qualifying campaign with a 4-1 thrashing of Armenia as Ilkay Gundogan scored twice.
North Macedonia secured the playoff place behind the four-time world champions in Group ‘J’ with a 3-1 win over Iceland.
Published in Dawn, November 16th, 2021