THE DAY REPLAYED *– *With long runs that finally came to an end, favourites that struggled to exert their authority, and critical results that completely changed the look of certain groups, the second instalment of the latest round of European qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ had a little bit of everything.
*FIFA.com *takes a look back at Saturday’s thrills and spills.
Group D: Austria 0-1 Ireland, Georgia 1-1 Moldova, Wales 1-1 Serbia
Group G: Albania 0-3 Israel, Liechtenstein 0-4 Italy, Spain 4-0 FYR Macedonia
Group I: Croatia 2-0 Iceland, Turkey 2-0 Kosovo, Ukraine 1-0 Finland
Match of the day
*Croatia 2-0 Iceland
Goals: Marcelo Brozovic (15’, 90’+1)
The Group I match between Croatia and Iceland, two teams that caught the eye at UEFA EURO 2016, promised much. The former team had impressed observers in France and could consider themselves unfortunate to have been ousted by eventual champions Portugal in the Round of 16, while the latter side reached the quarter-finals after sensationally defeating England in the previous round.
However, in four previous meetings, Strákarnir okkar had never beaten the Croatians, losing three times and drawing once, with just one goal scored and nine conceded. And although their status has clearly changed since their unexpected European Championship exploits, their fans will have to wait until next time to see this undesirable trend reversed.
The Vatreni demonstrated their technical superiority throughout, but even more so in the move that led to the opening goal, Marcelo Brozovic taking a fine flick from Ivan Rakitic in his stride and curling the ball skilfully into the net from the edge of the box. The Inter Milan midfielder added a second strike late on, picking up a pass from Luka Modric on the halfway line and surging forward to slot it past the Icelandic goalkeeper and send his side clear at the top of the pool.
Group D also featured an encounter between two EURO 2016 participants, as Ireland continued their fine run of form by clinching a 1-0 win in Austria, who have struggled since failing to win a game in France. James McClean got the all-important goal in Vienna, which sent the Irish to the summit of the section.
In Georgia, meanwhile, the home side seemed on the verge of their first success in the group following Valeri Kazaishvili’s early opener, but a memorable volley from Aleksandru Gatcan 12 minutes from time helped ensure that Moldova would leave Tbilisi with a point – their first of the campaign.
Last but not least, Wales looked to have done enough against Serbia, but Gareth Bale’s goal was cancelled out in the final few minutes by Aleksandar Mitrovic.
In Group G, Italy and Spain did as was expected of them versus Liechtenstein and FYR Macedonia respectively, although it took La Roja much longer than La Nazionale to properly seal their victory. Back in third spot but still in the hunt, Israel have not given up on their qualification dream just yet, taking three points from their clash with an Albania team that finished with nine men.
The other two matches in Group I saw Turkey and Ukraine emerge victorious from hard-fought duels with Kosovo and Finland. The Turks made hard work of the first half, and had to wait until the 51st minute to make the breakthrough against the stuffy newcomers. The Ukrainians’ tight 1-0 win enabled them to leapfrog Iceland into second place, behind Croatia.
Player of the day
Kosovo are currently competing in their first-ever World Cup qualifying campaign, which inevitably makes them one of the least experienced teams in Europe. However, that is not the case for goalkeeper Samir Ujkani, who played in 12 qualifiers for Albania in the run-up to South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014. Calling upon that experience and unfazed by the raucous Turkish crowd, he put in an extremely composed performance in the Antalya Arena on Saturday.
In the first half, he consistently repelled Turkey’s attacks, saving efforts by Selcuk Inan, Volkan Sen, Hakan Calhanoglu and Burak Yilmaz. However, despite his obvious talent between the sticks, Ujkani, who has played the entirety of his club career in Italy (since 2007), is not a miracle worker, and he could do nothing to prevent the Kosovans from conceding two quick and crucial goals at the start of the second period.
Did you know?
Ireland had not beaten Austria in their last eight meetings, losing six times and drawing twice, but McClean rounded off a quick Irish attack to bring that unwanted run to an end. Wales, meanwhile had never beaten Serbia in 11 attempts (eight defeats and three draws) and entertained real hopes of ending that hoodoo once their talisman, Gareth Bale, had scored the opener – his 11th goal in 14 matches – in the 30th minute. But Mitrovic, who headed an equaliser in the 86th minute, had other ideas.
*What they said*
“I am very satisfied; we were still attacking in the 94th minute. This is the proof that we are taking steps in the right direction. We were very good today, and yes, I would have definitely signed up for a win like this before the game,” Italy coach Giampiero Ventura.