Russia, Italy and Ukraine lived up to their favourites’ tags to move to a step closer to a place at the FIFA Futsal World Cup Colombia 2016, thanks to emphastic away victories in their European Zone play-off first legs.

Two-time world champions Spain, in contrast, were tripped up in Slovenia, with the hosts winning 1-0 via Alen Fetic’s solitary strike. La Roja, participants in every previous edition of the Futsal World Cup, must respond in the second leg to deny the Slovenians a first-ever trip to the global showpiece.

What is more, coach Jose Venancio’s Selección, runners-up at the last two Futsal World Cups and UEFA Futsal EURO 2016 champions, had been on an unbeaten run of 27 competitive matches – while they had not been defeated in normal time since 2005.

Quartet take significant stride
Italy, third-placed finishers at Thailand 2012, were comfortable 3-0 winners over Hungary, to put themselves in line to qualify for a seventh Futsal World Cup appearance. Their goals came via a double from Alex Merlim and one from Rodolfo Fortino, winner of the adidas Silver Ball award on Thai soil four years ago.

Ukraine and Russia, both quarter-finalists at Thailand 2012, also picked up clear victories – with the Ukrainians demolishing Slovakia 6-0, including a hat-trick from Mykhailo Grytsyna. Russia, for their part, sank Belarus 4-1, featuring a double from Sergei Abramov.

Azerbaijan, meanwhile, have one foot at their first Futsal World Cup after a ruthless 5-1 dismantling of the Netherlands. Inspired by a double from nationalised Brazilian Amadeu, the Azerbaijanis appear to have crushed Dutch dreams of a first Futsal World Cup appearance since Guatemala 2000.

Still too close to call
Portugal and their star man Ricardinho still have work to do after their visit to Serbia, hosts of February’s Futsal EURO. Beaten by the Serbs in the group phase of that competition, they drew a measure of revenge by winning a tight contest 2-1 – Joao Matos and Cardinal the scorers for the Lusitanians, who are aiming for a fifth Futsal World Cup participation in a row. Netting Serbia’s goal was Marko Peric.

Kazakhstan, for their part, whose only previous Futsal World Cup appearance was in Guatemala 16 years ago, picked up a valuable 1-1 first-leg draw in Poland. The visitors were just 27 seconds away from securing an away win, only for Marcin Mikołajewicz to grab a late leveller for the home side.

The second legs of this third and final phase of European Zone qualifying, which will decide all seven UEFA representatives at Colombia 2016, will be played on 12 April.