THE DAY REPLAYED – In the eagerly-awaited pick of Saturday’s European FIFA World Cup Russia 2018™ qualifiers, Spain recorded a surprisingly resounding 3-0 win over Italy to ensure they finished the evening as undisputed Group G leaders, while Groups D and I remain as close as ever. The match between Croatia and Kosovo was postponed until Sunday 3 September because of adverse weather conditions in Zagreb.
Group D: Serbia 3-0 Moldova, Georgia 1-1 Republic of Ireland, Wales 1-0 Austria
Group G: Albania 2-0 Liechtenstein, Israel 0-1 FYR Macedonia, Spain 3-0 Italy
Group I: Finland 1-0 Iceland, Ukraine 2-0 Turkey, Croatia – Kosovo (postponed due to adverse weather conditions)
Match of the day
Spain 3-0 Italy
After battling to a well-deserved draw against Spain in Turin last October, Giampiero Ventura’s Italy had few chances to make their mark on the reverse fixture in Madrid.
Isco curled a wonderful free-kick over the wall after 13 minutes to put the home side ahead, and with the Italian plan to threaten with crosses from the wings gradually falling apart as the match wore on, Isco’s second goal – a low shot from the edge of the penalty area after 40 minutes – was the logical conclusion to the first half.
Substitute Alvaro Morata wrapped up the three points in the 77th minute thanks to a perfectly-placed assist from Sergio Ramos, as the four-time world champions failed to discover their attacking spark.
“I’m very glad that I could help the team on such a special evening with two goals against Italy at the Bernabeu,” said Isco after the match. “It was a perfect evening, a perfect match. I think we deserved the win. We’ve shown for a long time that we play as a unit, and we demonstrated that again tonight against strong opposition.”
There is still everything to play for in Group D, where leading trio Serbia (15 points), Republic of Ireland (13) and Wales (11) remain unbeaten.
The matchday’s biggest winners were the Serbians, who defeated Moldova 3-0 in Belgrade thanks to goals from Mijat Gacinovic (20’), Aleksandar Kolarov (30’) and Aleksandar Mitrovic (81’), and are now clear group leaders. Despite taking the lead through Shane Duffy in Georgia, the Irish – who were level on points with Serbia going into Saturday’s matches – had no answer to Valeri Qazaishvili’s 34th-minute equaliser.
Meanwhile, fans in Cardiff witnessed a very special moment, as 17-year-old Benjamin Woodburn of Liverpool, who has played just 82 English Premier League minutes (all during the 2016/17 season) in his career to date, made his senior international debut for Wales in the 69th minute of their home game against Austria before scoring the only goal of the match less than 300 seconds later.
The result means that Austria’s World Cup dream is all but over.
Having opened up a three-point advantage over Italy by beating them 3-0 at home, Spain will hope that this is enough to get them over the finish line.
Despite the disappointment of defeat, there was better news for the Azzurri from elsewhere in the group. While Albania’s 2-0 home win over Liechtenstein (with second-half goals from Odise Roshi and Ansi Agolli) came as no surprise, Goran Pandev’s 73rd-minute goal consigned Israel to a 1-0 home defeat by FYR Macedonia, leaving the Italians relatively untroubled in second place, four points ahead of the Albanians and seven points ahead of fourth-place Israel.
Although Group I was already one of the most exciting and closely-contested groups in European World Cup qualifying, the situation escalated even further on Saturday.
Ukraine’s 2-0 victory against Turkey temporarily secured them top spot after in-form Iceland suffered a shock 1-0 defeat to a Finland side that had only collected one point from the campaign before the day’s action, with Alexander Ring scoring the winning goal after just eight minutes in Tampere with a superb free-kick finish.
Nevertheless, a draw in Zagreb against bottom-of-the-table Kosovo will be enough for Croatia to climb back into pole position after their match on Saturday was postponed due to bad weather.
Player of the day
Years of speculation about a big move to one of Europe’s top leagues finally came to an end for Ukraine winger Andriy Yarmolenko this summer, with the 27-year-old now plying his trade for Borussia Dortmund in the German Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League. In the same week that his transfer was made official, Yarmolenko breathed new life into Ukraine’s World Cup hopes by scoring both goals in his side’s 2-0 home win over Turkey. “He’s been wanting to play in a top European league for a long time now,” said former Ukraine international Andrey Voronin. “Although he hasn’t managed to get that move for the last few years, he can finally show what he is made of on the world stage.” He may yet get a chance to shine on the biggest stage of all.