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. Spain beat Greece 1-0 thanks to Pablo Sarabia’s penalty to overtake Sweden, who slipped to a 2-0 loss at already-eliminated Georgia. Spain host Sweden on Sunday in one of three winners-take-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 on Thursday.
Portugal’s goalless draw in Dublin was less than impressive, but it was enough. The point Portugal earned against Ireland saw them ease ahead of group rivals Serbia in the standings on goal difference. That means a draw will be enough for Portugal to qualify automatically when it host 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.
Sweden had their 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 their 1-0 win over Greece, sealed with a penalty.
Russia and Croatia each won big against overmatched opponents in games which were merely a warm-up for their qualifying decider. Croatia host Russia on Sunday and the winners will qualify 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.
Germany have already qualified 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 Mueller finished with two goals each.