By JUSTIN FERGUSON
If World Cup Qualifying would have ended any time before Friday, Portugal would be out of a ticket to Brazil 2014 thanks to a disappointing stretch of matches in Group F.
But there are still a few matchdays left in UEFA’s section of qualifying, and Portugal jumped from third to first on Friday with a 1-0 win over previous leaders Russia.
Helder Postiga’s early goal gave Portugal enough to get their qualifying campaign back on track. The Real Zaragoza striker found himself on the end of Miguel Veloso’s free kick and got his ninth-minute strike to go off the post and in.
The Portugal attack, led by Cristiano Ronaldo, kept pushing for a more comfortable lead throughout the match, but were denied every time. The visiting Russians, who now trail Portugal by two points with two matches in hand, still suffered their first dropped points of the campaign after mounting very little threat to Rui Patricio’s goal.
Meanwhile, an already eliminated squad made international headlines on Friday by grabbing their first competitive win in almost two years.
Scotland was the first UEFA group stage nation to be mathematically eliminated from World Cup contention, but Gordon Strachan’s men fought hard for the shock of the day—a 1-0 road win over an off-target Croatia squad.
Norwich City’s Robert Snodgrass played the hero for the visiting Scots, poking in a loose ball after a great run from teammate Shaun Maloney. The 22nd-minute goal would be the only shot on goal for Scotland, who entered the match 70 places behind Croatia in the FIFA Rankings.
Here are the rest of the results from a busy Friday in Europe:
Scotland’s massive upset over Croatia meant more than just national pride for the visitors—it allowed Belgium to open up a lead at the top of the Group A table. The Belgians now have a three-point lead over Croatia with three matches to play after their 2-1 win over Serbia. Midfielders Kevin de Bruyne and Marouane Fellaini each headed in goals for the hosts, and Aleksandar Kolarov’s late free kick goal was not enough to keep Serbia’s qualification dreams alive.
Scotland 1, Croatia 0
Belgium 2, Serbia 1
Italy failed to grab a six-point advantage at the top of Group B after a scoreless draw with the Czech Republic. The big moment of a rather pedestrian match was Mario Balotelli’s quickfire yellow cards in the middle of the second half. The striker was carded for back-to-back fouls in the 68th and 72nd minute, leading to an early and emotional exit for the AC Milan man. It was Balotelli’s first sending off for Italy, who did not register a single shot on Petr Cech’s goal.
Czech Republic 0, Italy 0
Malta 1, Armenia 0
Los Angeles Galaxy striker Robbie Keane celebrated his record-breaking 126th international cap with a hat trick as Ireland cruised past the Faroe Islands 3-0. The hosts dominated the tiny Faroes, who have not recorded a point through six group stage matches. Keane’s goals in the fifth, 55th and 81st minutes gave him his second hat trick on the international stage—his first came against San Marino in 2006.
Ireland’s win allowed them to stay level on points with Austria, who kept control of second place in Group C with a 2-1 win over Sweden. Austria needed all three points against Sweden, who trailed only in goal differential heading into Friday’s match in Vienna. David Alaba and Marc Janko each netted first half goals as the hosts held on for a precious win over their rivals. Austria holds a +8 goal differential advantage over Ireland, who now lead a stunned fourth-place Sweden by three points.
Ireland 3, Faroe Islands 0
Austria 2, Sweden 1
Norway kept Albania from getting closer to their first World Cup spot and saved their own qualification campaign with a 1-1 road draw. Tom Høgli was the hero for Norway, heading in an 87th-minute corner to cancel out Valdet Rama’s 41st-minute opener. A win would have given Albania a two-point lead over Switzerland, who have a match in hand. But Høgli’s header kept the race for qualification tight.
Iceland failed to stake its claim for a top-two spot on Friday after an embarrassing 4-2 home loss to Slovenia. The hosts grabbed a 2-1 lead midway through the first half with a delightful double, but Valter Birsla’s penalty conversion at the half-hour opened the door for two second-half goals from Slovenia. With the win, Slovenia is now out of the bottom of the Group E table and still has a bit of hope for a spot in Brazil.
Albania 1, Norway 1
Slovenia 4, Iceland 2
Portugal 1, Russia 0
Azerbaijan 1, Luxembourg 1
Bosnia-Herzegovina continued their offensive assault on the rest of Group G on Friday with a 5-0 win over Latvia. The visitors scored all five of their goals in the second half to maintain their lead at the top of the group. Bosnia-Herzegovina’s 23 goals through six matches leads Europe in this round of World Cup qualifying.
Greece maintained its hold on second place with a 1-0 road win over Lithuania. Lazaros Christodoulopoulos’s header was all the Greeks needed for all three points over Lithuania, now winless in its last four matches. Although Bosnia-Herzegovina has a commanding advantage in goal differential, Greece could still grab the automatic qualifying spot thanks to their easier schedule to close out qualifying.
Bosnia-Herzegovina 5, Latvia 0
Greece 1, Lithuania 0
Liechtenstein 1, Slovakia 1
Group H was rocked on Friday as Ukraine routed leaders Montenegro 4-0 in a match that featured three red cards. Ukraine had the first red card in first-half stoppage time, but the man disadvantage meant very little as the visitors scored four second-half goals in stunning fashion. The win puts Ukraine just one point behind England and three behind still-leading Montenegro, who had two of their own sent off in the second half misery.
Ukraine 4, Montenegro 0
Moldova 1, Poland 1
Finland 1, Belarus 0
What did you think of these matches? Like Portugal’s chances at automatic qualification after the win at Russia? Stunned at Croatia’s loss to already-eliminated Scotland? What other results caught your eye?
Share your thoughts below.