Serbia shocks Portugal to join Spain, Croatia at World Cup

Spain, Serbia and Croatia are heading to next year’s World Cup. Sweden, Portugal and Russia aren’t — not yet, anyway.

Aleksandar Mitrovic’s 90th-minute header left Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal stunned in a 2-1 win for Serbia in Lisbon, which gave Serbia an automatic qualifying spot at the World Cup in Qatar. Portugal still has a chance to qualify, but it must navigate a four-team bracket in the playoffs in March, Associated Press reported.

All of the teams which booked a World Cup place in Europe on Sunday did so with dramatic late goals.

Spain only needed a draw in its last game against Sweden to qualify, but Álvaro Morata made sure in the 86th minute with the only goal in a 1-0 win to leave veteran Sweden star Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s hopes of another World Cup appearance depending on the playoffs.

Croatia laid siege to Russia’s goal on a waterlogged field quickly turning into a swamp, and was finally rewarded when a Russian defender scored an 81st-minute own-goal, enough for a 1-0 win.

Russia, too, heads to the playoffs, which start March 24 and will sort 12 teams — 10 group runner-ups and two with strong records from the Nations League — into three brackets of four teams. Each bracket has one World Cup place. The draw takes place Nov. 26 in Zurich.

GROUP A

Portugal was in a strong position when Renato Sanches scored the opening goal after just two minutes against Serbia, but Dusan Tadic kept Serbia in the game with an equalizer in the 33rd. Mitrovic’s late header silenced the crowd and shocked Portugal’s players, including Ronaldo, who sat on the field at the final whistle.

“It was an amazing game, fully deserved,” Mitrovic said. “I think we deserved to win the game and to be in Qatar.”

Beating Portugal for the first time marks a turnaround after Serbia failed to qualify for the European Championship.

There’s one positive for Portugal. Its comparatively strong record in the group means it will be one of the seeded teams for the playoffs in March and will get a home draw for the single-leg bracket semifinal game. Portugal last missed a World Cup in 1998.

Ireland won 3-0 at Luxembourg in the other Group A game.

GROUP B

Substitute Morata scored the winner for Spain after Dani Olmo’s long-range shot bounced off the post to send Spain to its 12th consecutive World Cup.

At the age of 40, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was bidding to reach his first World Cup since 2006 with Sweden — he didn’t make the squad in 2018 — but couldn’t change the game after coming off the bench in the 74th.

That ended a campaign which seemed to be under control for Sweden before a shock 2-0 loss to Georgia on Thursday.

In Athens, already eliminated Greece and Kosovo drew 1-1.

GROUP H

The runners-up from the 2018 World Cup, Croatia, had to brave 2018 host team Russia and the weather to book its place at next year’s tournament.

In driving rain on a waterlogged pitch which forced Croatia to switch its game plan to long shots and crosses, an own-goal from Russian defender Fedor Kudriashov handed Croatia a win and a place in Qatar as group winner.

Croatia dominated the game against a Russian team for which a draw would have been enough to finish first, but poor shooting and some solid saves from goalkeeper Matvey Safonov made for a tense finish. Russia will be seeded in the playoffs.

Third-place Slovakia eased to a 6-0 win over Malta with a hat trick from attacking midfielder Ondrej Duda. Slovenia beat Cyprus 2-1.

GROUP J

On a night of drama for other big European teams, Germany stayed calm in a straightforward win. Germany qualified last month and has spent this week burnishing its already impressive goal difference to +32, the best in European qualifying at the moment.

Except for Hansi Flick’s winning record as Germany coach, there wasn’t much riding on the 4-1 win over Armenia, a team which had only the slimmest mathematical chance of qualifying for the playoffs. Two goals from Ilkay Gundogan helped Flick earn his seventh win from seven games in charge.

North Macedonia remains in contention to reach a World Cup for the first time after beating Iceland 3-1 to secure a spot in the playoffs. Eljif Elmas scored twice for his team, which will be unseeded. Romania beat Liechtenstein 2-0 but missed the playoffs because of North Macedonia’s win.

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