BAKU: Aleksandar Mitrovic struck his fourth and fifth goals in the space of six days, as Serbia strengthened their position at European Group A’s summit of the 2022 World Cup qualifying competition with a 2-1 win away to Aerbaijan.
All was running to plan for the unbeaten visitors in the first half, when Dusan Tadic and Mitrovic – the European qualifiers’ top scorer and assist-provider respectively – combined for the latter to cut inside and fire powerfully into the bottom-right corner.
Azerbaijan created plenty of chances themselves and were rewarded just before the hour when Emin Makhmudov sent Predrag Rajkovic the wrong way with the coolest of penalties. Mitrovic responded with his second superb goal of the evening – volleying home left-footed from 20 yards – to seal a hard-fought win.
Also in Group A Portugal came from behind to beat Luxembourg 3-1 away and make it seven points from a possible nine.
Gerson Rodrigues, who was immense from the outset, scored a magnificent diving header to stun a team 93 places above Luxembourg on the World Ranking. However, close-range goals from Diogo Jota and Cristiano Ronaldo either side of the break swung the game in Portugal’s favour, before substitute Joao Palhinha sealed victory.
Three first-time international scorers helped Belgium cruise past Belarus 8-0 to go top of Group E.
Jeremy Doku slid in Michy Batshuayi, who crashed in a shot at the near post for the opener. Hans Vanaken doubled the Red Devils’ lead moments later with his first international goal and then Leandro Trossard opened his account with the goal of the evening, a thunderbolt from 25 yards.
Doku got his name on the scoresheet before half-time when Dennis Praet found him with a perfectly-timed through ball and the 18-year-old did the rest, finishing like a seasoned veteran. Dennis Praet continued the theme less than five minutes into the second half by grabbing his first international goal, driving in a long-range strike.
Christian Benteke came off the bench to make it six, guiding in Toby Alderweireld’s early cross. Trossard and Vanaken both doubled their personal tallies on a night that Aleksandr Gutor will want to forget in a hurry.
Vital win for Wales
In Group E Daniel James headed home a late winner as Wales edged out Czech Republic in a tense match in which both sides were reduced to ten men.
Gareth Bale set up the all-important goal with a superb left-foot cross, atoning for having missed the best of precious few chances in Cardiff. Patrik Schick had earlier been shown a direct red card for lashing out at Connor Roberts, who himself was handed his marching orders soon after following a second cautionable offence. Wales are now unbeaten in their last 12 home matches.
In Group G a burst of four goals in the space of ten second-half minutes eased Netherlands to a comfortable 7-0 victory in Gibraltar and kept them within touching distance of leaders Turkey.
The Dutch toiled during a frustrating first half and were indebted to Steven Berghuis – a star in their win over Latvia – for belatedly settling nerves with another well-taken left-foot finish. Berghuis then turned provider to tee up Luuk de Jong to score in his third successive international game, and polish was added to the scoreline by a Memphis Depay double and close-range finishes from Georginio Wijnaldum, Donyell Malen and Donny van de Beek.
Blow for Turks
In Group G Latvia battled back snatch a 3-3 draw in Istanbul and end Turkey’s 100-per-cent record in Group G. Kenan Karaman and Hakan Calhanoglu had the hosts 2-0 ahead, but Roberts Savaļnieks pulled one back before half-time.
Burak Yilmaz’s penalty shortly after the restart restored Turkey’s two-goal lead, but goals from Roberts Uldriķis and Davis Ikaunieks secured Latvia’s first point of the campaign.
Norway bounced back from their bruising defeat to Turkey by grinding out a hard-fought 1-0 win in Montenegro.
Having won each of their last three matches, Montenegro were high on confidence and made life difficult for the visitors throughout. But the all-important goal arrived ten minutes from half-time when Mohamed Elyounoussi wove his way through the hosts’ defence and cut the ball back for Alexander Sorloth to sweep home from close range.
In Group H Slovakia finally set their campaign up and running with a 2-1 victory over 2018 hosts Russia in Trnava.
Milan Skriniar powered in a header from a corner kick minutes before half-time to put the home side in front. Mario Fernandes equalised for Stanislav Cherchesov’s charges, but Robert Mak produced a moment of individual brilliance and scored the winner to leave things wide open.
Substitutes made the difference for Croatia as Zlatko Dalic’s side hit their stride against Malta in Rijeka. Ivan Perisic came off the bench to help the 2018 World Cup finalists make the breakthrough, finishing fellow substitute Borna Barisic’s cross. Luka Modric doubled their lead from the penalty spot and Josip Brekalo added a third.
Cyprus made it four points from three games with a surprise 1-0 win over Slovenia in Nicosia. The visitors dominated the early stages but failed to make a breakthrough, for which they were punished just before the interval.
Some brilliant Fotis Papoulis footwork enabled him to find Ioannis Pittas, who beat Jan Oblak for his maiden international goal. Cyprus defended infallibly in the second half to clinch a memorable victory and leap above Slovenia, who remain on three points.
In Asia . . .
In the Asian qualifying section Japan stretched their lead at the top of Group F with a ruthless 14-0 demolition of Mongolia.
This meeting of the section’s top and bottom sides always looked likely to prove a mismatch, and the floodgates duly opened when Takumi Minamino fired the Samurai Blue into a 13th-minute lead.
The Mongolian goal was breached four more times in the first half alone, with Yuya Osako, Daichi Kamada and Hidemasa Morita on target before Kash-Erdene Tuya put through his own net. Japan proved even more relentless after the break, with double figures reached in style as Osako completed his hat-trick, Kyogo Furuhashi, Junya Ito and Sho Inagaki all scored two and Takuma Asano added further sheen to the scoreline.
Their final haul of 14 unanswered goals saw Japan match the biggest win recorded in the Qatar 2022 preliminaries: an identical 14-0 triumph for Iran over Cambodia in October 2019.
Saleh Alshehri dazzled as Saudi Arabia thrashed Palestine 5-0 to surge above Uzbekistan to the top of Group D. After Yasser Alshahrani’s header finally rewarded the hosts’ dominance in the 37th minute, Alshehri’s brilliant back-heel helped set up Fahad Almuwallad to double the lead.
The 27-year-old forward then scored twice after the interval, the second masterfully created by a delightful, nutmeg-decorated dribble by Sultan Al Ghanam. Salem Aldawsari completed the rout from the spot late on.