Croatia clinched an automatic berth in next year’s World Cup finals in dramatic fashion as a late Fedor Kudryashov own goal gave them a 1-0 home win over Russia in their crunch Group D qualifier on Sunday.
Croatia, the 2018 World Cup runners-up, jumped above Russia to top the standings on 23 points from 10 games, one more than the second-placed Russians.
Croatia dominated a match played in driving rain but a string of good saves by the visiting goakeeper, Matvei Safonov, and a waterlogged pitch kept them at bay before Kudryashov’s clumsy 80th-minute touch delighted the home fans.
Needing a draw to qualify, Russia defended with everyone behind the ball and soaked up intense pressure as the home side besieged their goal but failed to create clearcut chances.
Andrej Kramaric headed straight at Safonov in the ninth minute before Marcelo Brozovic unleashed two long-range efforts, one sailing inches wide and the other drawing an acrobatic save from the visiting keeper.
Safonov kept out a close-range Mario Pasalic header with a superb stop in the 47th minute and the Russians appeared to be home and dry before they were undone by Kudryashov’s error.
With waves of Croatia attacks losing momentum on a difficult pitch, Borna Sosa floated in a hopeful cross from the left and Kudryashov bundled the ball into his own net after it bounced awkwardly in front of him.
Russia missed their only chance to salvage the game from their first fluent move in stoppage time, Vyacheslav Karavaev firing over the bar.
Stephen Kenny’s hopes of earning a contract extension were handed a major boost as the Republic of Ireland won 3-0 against Luxembourg in their final World Cup qualifier.
Goals from Shane Duffy, Chiedozie Ogbene and Callum Robinson inside the final 22 minutes clinched victory – just the Republic’s second in a competitive fixture in 15 attempts – and third place in Group A behind Serbia and Portugal.
The FAI president, Gerry McAnaney, and chief executive officer, Jonathan Hill, were at the Stade De Luxembourg as they prepare to sit down to discuss Kenny’s future after a campaign which started badly but has finished in more promising fashion.
Luxembourg played a significant part in that dreadful start when they won 1-0 in Dublin in March, but although they had a goal correctly chalked off with the score at 0-0, they rarely threatened a repeat in front of a capacity crowd of 9,268.
Luxembourg’s Danel Sinani was well into his celebration after thumping Laurent Jans’ cross past Gavin Bazunu, but the referee, Tamas Bognar, ruined his evening by blowing for a foul on Duffy by the substitute Maurice Deville during the buildup.
The home side’s misery increased 22 minutes from time when, after Selimovic had been penalised for a foul on the substitute Jason Knight, he then got his head to Josh Cullen’s free-kick, but could only help it on to Duffy at the far post and he powered it into the net from point-blank range.
It deepened seven minutes later when Jeff Hendrick picked out Knight’s run into the box and he audaciously back-heeled it square for Ogbene to lift the ball over the advancing Ralph Schon, and was complete with two minutes remaining when Knight turned James McClean’s cross back across goal for Robinson to tap in.
Germany midfielder Ilkay Gundogan scored twice in their 4-1 victory over Armenia to finish top of Group J with their seventh straight win under coach Hansi Flick.
Already-qualified Germany, missing a dozen players through injury, suspension and Covid-19 quarantine and having made six changes to the team that beat Liechtenstein 9-0 on Thursday, earned their ninth win in 10 qualifiers to finish in top spot on 27 points. North Macedonia are in second place on 18. Gundogan struck either side of the break after Kai Havertz had put the visitors in front. Jonas Hofmann also scored for Germany. “There are things we need to train and things will get better,” Flick said. “You see the team wants constantly to go forward to create chances. We know where we need to improve but we still have time. But overall we have won seven games, won the last game of the year as well I can only congratulate them.”