The seventh round of European qualifying matches for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ is likely to be remembered principally for the surprise home defeats suffered by Croatia and Montenegro, but there were also important developments elsewhere, with Portugal leapfrogging Russia and Belgium pulling clear of Croatia in their respective groups.
The teams that have punched above their weight thus far in qualifying – Armenia, Iceland and Albania – did not enjoy the best of nights, unlike Bosnia-Herzegovina, who again recorded a high-scoring win, beating Latvia 5-0 and confirming their attacking prowess in the process.
The eighth matchday in the European Zone will take place on 6 September.
The big match*Portugal 1-0 Russia, Group F, Estadio da Luz, Lisbon
*Goal: Helder Postiga 9
Portugal needed to win and win they did; the 1-0 result puts them right back in the race for automatic qualification. The Lusitanians began the match at blistering speed, unnerving the Russians, who appeared somewhat off the pace.
The opening goal did not take long to materialise: Miguel Veloso’s curling 9th-minute free-kick from the left-hand side fooled the Russian rearguard, who allowed Helder Postiga to creep in at the back post and force the ball over the line.
As the game developed, however, the away side gradually created some useful chances, and the pendulum began to swing back and forth, with both teams appearing capable of finding the net at any time.
Despite a superb acrobatic attempt by Vladimir Bystrov and numerous efforts from an on-song Cristiano Ronaldo, there would be no further scoring. The Portuguese consequently claim top spot in the pool, and lie two points clear of the Russians, who have played two fewer games, and three ahead of Israel.
The other gamesGroup A*
*Croatia 0-1 Scotland
Belgium 2-1 Serbia
Arguably the most surprising result of the night came in Zagreb, where Scotland, already eliminated from Brazil 2014 and missing several key players, handed Croatia their first loss of the campaign. Norwich City’s Robert Snodgrass nabbed the winning goal after 26 minutes, and Croatia subsequently failed to break down a resolute and hard-working Scottish defence. The Croatians now trail Belgium by three points.
Les Diables Rouges put in a solid performance to beat Serbia through goals from Kevin de Bruyne and Marouane Fellaini.
*Armenia 0-1 Malta
Czech Republic 0-0 Italy
Gianluigi Buffon was again on fine form in Prague, pulling off half a dozen crucial saves versus an enterprising Czech side, who even hit the post three minutes from time through Petr Jiracek.
In the end, the Italians were clearly happy to escape with a point, especially after having had Mario Balotelli sent off in the second half. The four-time world champions still enjoy a four-point lead over Bulgaria at the top of Group B.
Elsewhere, Malta earned their first victory, overcoming Armenia away from home via a Michael Mifsud strike.
*Ireland 3-0 Faroe Islands
Austria 2-1 Sweden
The battle for second place behind Germany looks like it may go to the wire. Austria confirmed that they are not to be taken lightly by defeating a disappointing Sweden – for whom Zlatan Ibrahimovic made little impression – in style. The Scandinavians, who still have a game in hand, now find themselves three points behind the Austrians and the Irish, who saw off the Faroes in Dublin.
*Iceland 2-4 Slovenia
Albania 1-1 Norway
Switzerland-Cyprus (8 June)
Fans in Reykjavik went through a rollercoaster of emotions, first celebrating as their heroes went 2-1 up over Slovenia in the 26th minute, aware that success would see them top the table ahead of Switzerland, and then despairing as their countrymen conspired to throw the match away.
Five minutes later, a Valter Birsa penalty revitalised the Slovenians, who went on to twice hit Iceland on the counter-attack in the second half, Bostjan Cesar and Rene Krhin doing the damage.
A similar scenario played out in the section’s other encounter in Tirana, where Albania led Norway with three minutes to go, only to concede a late equaliser to Tom Hogli. Both these results constitute good news for the Swiss, who play on Saturday.
*Azerbaijan 1-1 Luxembourg
The group’s bottom two teams could not be separated in Baku, and either side could still end up holding the dreaded wooden spoon.
*Latvia 0-5 Bosnia-Herzegovina
Lithuania 0-1 Greece
Liechtenstein 1-1 Slovakia
Latvia held out for an entire half, but collapsed in the second period due to Bosnia-Herzegovina’s incessant incursions. With attack-minded players such as Senad Lulic, Vedad Ibisevic, Haris Medunjanin, Miralem Pjanic and Edin Dzeko at their disposal, the Balkan side have been able to rack up an average of 4.66 goals per match so far.
But Greece, who had Lazaros Christodoulopoulos to thank for their win in Lithuania, continue to give chase, but their destiny – at least as far as first place is concerned – is no longer in their own hands.
Slovakia, meanwhile, now trail the Greeks by four points after their shock draw in Liechtenstein.
*Montenegro 0-4 Ukraine
Moldova 1-1 Poland
Without even playing, England enjoyed an excellent night in Group H, following Montenegro’s resounding reverse at home to Ukraine. In a robust contest that saw three players given a red card, the Montenegrins proved surprisingly fragile in defence, conceding more goals in 40 minutes than they had during their first six matches combined.
The result propels the Ukrainians back into the qualifying picture, with the top three teams separated by just three points.
Poland appeared to have done enough to emerge victorious in Moldova after opening their account in the 7th minute, team captain Jakub Blaszczykowski leading by example to fire home a wonderful pass from his Borussia Dortmund team-mate, Robert Lewandowski.
But the Moldovans, who are already mathematically eliminated, equalised via Eugeniu Sidorenco a few minutes prior to the break. There was no change to the score in the second half, and the result sees Poland drop to fourth place in the table.
*Finland 1-0 Belarus
Finland picked up their first victory of the campaign, Kasper Hamalainen’s goal on the hour mark helping them to get the better of Belarus in Helsinki.
The playerFifteen years after making his international debut for Ireland, Robbie Keane is evidently still capable of hitting the back of the net at the highest level. The evergreen striker practically bagged three points singlehandedly for Giovanni Trapattoni’s men with an impressive hat-trick against the Faroe Islands. The LA Galaxy star, who will turn 33 in July, is his nation’s all-time leading scorer, boasting 59 goals in 127 appearances.
The goal*Austria 2-0 Sweden (Marc Janko 32)
*Six minutes after David Alaba had opened the scoring from the penalty spot, Martin Harnik floated over an inviting cross from the right for the powerful Trabzonspor front man, Marc Janko, who dispatched an unstoppable header into the corner of the Swedish net.
The stat 36 – the number of consecutive qualifying matches that Italy have now gone without defeat, UEFA EURO and FIFA World Cup combined. Of those, La Nazionale have won 28 and drawn eight.
Have your sayWill Austria, Sweden or Ireland secure the runners-up spot behind Germany in Group C?