World Cup qualifying: Spain, Italy win easily to lead Group G
Former champions Spain and Italy eased to comfortable 4–0 wins over weak opponents in European qualifying for the 2018 World Cup on Saturday.
A Spain side missing several players due to injury tacked on some late goals to trounce Macedonia while Italy eased up after a first-half barrage at Liechtenstein to remain tied atop Group G with 10 points each.
Ireland seized control of Group D with a 1-0 win over Austria, while rivals Wales and Serbia drew 1–1 after a dramatic end in Cardiff.
Croatia led Group I after Marcelo Brozovic scored twice in a 2–0 win over Iceland.
Only the group winner automatically secures a spot for the World Cup in Russia. The second-place team must go through a playoff to make it to the 2018 tournament.
Here is a look at each European qualifying group in play on Saturday:
Macedonia made a promising start to the match in Granada but went behind for good in the first half when Darko Velkovski’s headed clearance landed in his own net.
Victor “Vitolo” Machin scored Spain's second goal to put the result beyond doubt, and Nacho Monreal and substitute Artiz Aduriz rounded off the win late.
Spain was without the injured Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos and Jordi Alba.
“We were without several players, but it’s true that their absences create opportunities,” Spain coach Julen Lopetegui said. “We have players with talent, attitude and ambition and they showed that tonight.”
Italy was led by forward Andrea Belotti, who opened and completed the quartet of goals just before halftime at Liechtenstein. In between his strikes, Ciro Immobile and Antonio Candreva scored.
Israel moved into third place with nine points after winning 3-0 at 10-man Albania in a match played under tight security. Media reports alleged a group of 15 persons arrested in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia, planned an attack during the game.
Albania has six points, and Macedonia and Liechtenstein zero.
James McClean’s 48th-minute goal in Vienna earned Ireland a third victory in four matches, and left fourth-place Austria facing an uphill task.
Hours later, Gareth Bale put Wales ahead against Serbia with his 26th international goal and came close to sealing victory when he struck the base of the post with a shot in the 85th. The Serbians went up the other end of field and equalized 50 seconds later, with Aleksandar Mitrovic glancing a header in off the post.
“You get close one end and they go the other end and score. Very disappointing,” said Bale, who was two goals off Ian Rush’s national record.
Ireland has 10 points, Serbia eight, Wales six, and Austria four.
In the group's other game, a 1–1 draw left Georgia with two points and Moldova with one.
Forced to play in an empty arena because of numerous cases of spectator unrest, Croatia took the lead early when Brozovic curled in a shot from outside the box.
Brozovic got another in stoppage time as Croatia largely dealt well with the Iceland counterattack that caused so many problems for top teams at the European Championship.
Croatia has 10 points, ahead of Ukraine with eight after it edged Finland 1–0 at home thanks to Artyom Kravets's first-half goal.
Kosovo’s difficult start to its first major qualifying competition continued with defeat away to Turkey 2–0.
Iceland was third with seven points, Turkey had five, while Finland and Kosovo have one each.