Serbia clinched an automatic berth in the 2022 World Cup finals after a 90th-minute header by half-time 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 play-offs.
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.
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 and crossed the line.
More poor goalkeeping presented Portugal with a gilt-edged chance to retake the lead on the stroke of half-time 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.
Stephen Kenny’s hopes of earning a contract extension were handed a major boost as the Republic of Ireland romped to a 3-0 win over Luxembourg in their final World Cup Qualifier.
Goals from Shane Duffy, Chiedozie Ogbene and Callum Robinson inside the final 22 minutes clinched victory – just Ireland’s second in a competitive fixture in 15 attempts – and third place in Group A behind Serbia and Portugal.
Group B – Spain qualify after late Sweden win
Spain qualified for next year’s World Cup finals in Qatar by beating visitors Sweden 1-0 thanks to a goal by substitute Alvaro Morata late in the second half.
Morata struck in the 86th minute when he cleverly lifted the ball over Sweden goalkeeper Robin Olsen after Dani Olmo’s fierce long-range drive came back off the post into his path.
It was a nervous affair and although Spain dominated play, the Swedes created the best opportunities through the dangerous Emil Forsberg and Alexander Isak on the counter-attack.
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 looked to be heading for a draw, which would have been enough to take Spain to the finals, when Olmo’s stunning strike rebounded off the woodwork to Morata, who had come on just before the hour mark, and he calmly put the ball in the net.
Spain finished top of Group B with 19 points, four ahead of the second-placed Swedes, who could still qualify through the play-offs in March.
Greece and Kosovo played out a 1-1 draw in their final World Cup Qualifier.
Group D – Croatia edge Russia to top spot
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.
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 play-offs.
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.
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.
Third-place Slovakia eased to a 6-0 win over Malta. Slovenia beat Cyprus 2-1.
Group J – North Macedonia take second, Germany beat Armenia
North Macedonia sealed a World Cup Qualifying play-off spot with a 3-1 home win over Iceland that secured them the runners-up spot in Group J, with midfielder Eljif Elmas scoring twice in the second half.
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.
In the 65th minute, 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.
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.
Forward Dennis Man put Romania 1-0 up in the eighth minute, but the visitors were unable to extend their lead as captain Nicolae Stanciu missed several chances and sent a first-half penalty wide with goalkeeper Benjamin Buechel beaten.
Despite denying Romania on a number of occasions following the break, Buechel was unable to stop Nicusor Bancu’s screamer from long range in the 87th minute that wrapped up the win for the visitors on an otherwise frustrating day.
Germany midfielder Ilkay Gundogan scored twice in their 4-1 victory over Armenia 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, got off to a strong start and Kai Havertz hit the post in the fifth minute. He did 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 scored 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.