LISBON, Portugal – Cristiano Ronaldo’s hopes of playing in a record fifth World Cup hang in the balance after Serbia stunned Portugal 2-1 in Lisbon to qualify for the 2022 World Cup.
Spain and Croatia secured their place in Qatar on Sunday with 1-0 wins over Sweden and Russia respectively.
Ronaldo already holds the record for players in five European Championships and seemed on track for another milestone when Portugal came out of the blocks to open the scoring after just two minutes with Renato Sanches.
However, Serbia recovered to dominate the remainder of the first half and deservedly equalized when Dusan Tadic’s shot was put on the post after Dusan Vlahovic hit a post.
Ronaldo was kept silent as another chance to score his 800th career goal came and went.
Instead it was Aleksandar Mitrovic who grabbed the vital goal as recovery time approached.
A little over a year ago, Mitrovic was the villain for his country as he was the only player not to score in a penalty against Scotland that saw Serbia lose Euro 2020.
However, the Fulham striker made dramatic amends when he directed a header from Tadic to the far post.
“It was a fantastic match,” Mitrovic said. “We were the best team today in every aspect of the game.”
Portugal now face two tough playoff matches in March to maintain their qualifying record for all major tournaments since the 1998 World Cup.
‘Huge weight outside’
“We have to apologize to the Portuguese, but my team will be in the World Cup, that’s guaranteed,” said Portugal coach Fernando Santos defiantly.
“We will have to prepare well to beat our rivals in March and to arrive in Qatar. But I always trust my players. “
Spain made sure to avoid the playoffs as Alvaro Morata’s goal four minutes from time put an end to Sweden’s resistance in Seville.
The 2-0 defeat of the Swedes to Kazakhstan on Thursday gave Spain pole position in Group B, which meant La Roja only needed one point to qualify.
Luis Enrique’s men were grateful for that truce as a repeat of the standoff between the sides was planned for a long time when they met in the Euro 2020 group stage.
Morata was the scapegoat that night for missing a string of chances, but he made his mark off the bench with a quiet finish after Robin Olsen had shot Dani Olmo’s shot on the crossbar.
“To be honest, it’s a huge weight on my shoulders,” said Luis Enrique. “I’ve felt a lot more pressure in these matches when people think it’s easy to get a result compared to the Euro or the Nations League.”
Croatia also needed a late goal, as an own goal by Fedor Kudryashov ripped Russia through in a wetland battle in Split.
Finalists at the last World Cup in 2018, Croatia looked destined for the playoffs as they struggled on a flooded pitch against a resolute Russian defense.
But Kudryashov’s mistake saw them snatch first place from the visitors eight minutes from time.
“It was a difficult game from the start due to the rain. We never gave up, we were patient and I think we deservedly won. We are the best team in this group, “said Croatia captain Luka Modric.
Germany had long ago booked their seat in Qatar, but ended their qualifying campaign with a 4-1 win over Armenia thanks to two goals from Ilkay Gundogan.
North Macedonia secured their place in the playoffs behind the four-time world champions with a 3-1 win over Iceland.
Get the most important sports news straight to your inbox
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to access The Philippine Daily Inquirer and 70+ other titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am and share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.