ZURICH: Morocco and Tunisia completed the African contingent at the 2018 World Cup finals on Saturday as the Irish Republic seized a play-off advantage over Denmark and Russia marked the reopening of Luzhniki with a defeat by Argentina.
Goals from defenders Nabil Dirar and Medhi Benatia handed Morocco a 2-0 away win over the Ivory Coast in their last qualifier to book a return to the finals for the first time in two decades.
Morocco needed only a draw from their final Group C game to finish top of the standings in the African preliminaries, ahead of the Ivorians, who had to win to clinch a fourth successive World Cup finals appearance.
But after weathering an early storm, including a penalty claim, Morocco scored two goals in the space of five minutes to put themselves on their way to the finals, where their last appearance was in France in 1998.
Tunisia booked their place in the finals after securing a point from a goalless draw at home against neighbours Libya.
The Tunisians finished on 14 points in Group A of the African preliminaries, one ahead of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who fell short despite a 3-1 win over Guinea in Kinshasa at the same time.
Unbeaten Tunisia, who have been to four previous World Cup finals and were the first African country to win a game at the finals in 1978, were denied a fifth win in six group matches as Libya’s goalkeeper Mohamed Nashnush made a number of key saves.
Libya avoided last place in the group with the draw as they advanced to four points with Guinea staying on three.
Libya had been forced to play all of their home games at neutral venues, including Tunisia, because of a FIFA ban on internationals in the country, where the security situation is judged unsafe for visiting teams.
Darren Randolph was the hero and Pione Sisto the villain as the Republic of Ireland scrapped their way to a 0-0 World Cup play-off draw in Denmark.
Randolph produced a fine double save to deny Jens Stryger Larsen and Andreas Cornelius, and then saw Sisto fire wide of an open goal after he had beaten away Christian Eriksen’s long-range effort during a torrid first half.
Ireland, as so often in the past, adopted an ultra-conservative approach which saw them create little of note, but they frustrated the Danes and the majority of a crowd of 36,189 at the Parken Stadium for much of a largely unappetising 90 minutes with a functional display.
The sides will reconvene at the Aviva Stadium on Tuesday night with a trip to Russia awaiting the victor, although a score draw will be enough for the Danes to snatch the ticket on away goals.
In Moscow a late goal by Sergio Aguero lifted Argentina to a 1-0 win over World Cup hosts Russia in the inaugural match at the newly-renovated Luzhniki stadium which will stage the Opening Match and Final of the World Cup.
Aguero’s header found the back of the net in the 86th minute, the striker beating veteran goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev after his initial shot was blocked by the Russian defence.
Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov said: “We knew that it would be a tough match and that we wouldn’t have possession in some moments. I think our defence played correctly from a tactical point of view but we were unable to start quality attacks, especially in the first half, when we had the ball.”
Originally opened in 1956, Luzhniki was one of the venues for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. It hosted the 2013 world athletics championships before being closed for renovations to prepare it for the World Cup.
Argentina play Nigeria in the southern Russian city of Krasnodar, which will not host any World Cup matches next year, on Nov. 14.
Russia face Spain in a friendly in St Petersburg on the same day.