VALLETTA: Croatia will host Russia on Sunday in Group H’s final match to decide who qualifies automatically for the 2022 World Cup after both recorded big wins.

Luka Modric was among the goalscorers for 2018 finalists Croatia as they thrashed Malta 7-1 in Valletta.
Meanwhile, Russia hit five second-half goals as they beat visitors Cyprus 6-0.

Russia lead the group by two points, so a draw on Sunday would secure top spot and World Cup qualification, with the runners-up earning a play-off spot.

Aleksandr Erokhin scored in each half for Russia against Cyprus in St Petersburg, with Fedor Smolov, Andrey Mostovoy, Aleksei Sutormin and Anton Zabolotny also on target in the last 35 minutes.

The win ensures they go into Sunday’s game in Split with a slight advantage.

Ivan Perisic fired Croatia into a sixth-minute lead in Malta as he steered the ball into an empty net and Duje Caleta-Car doubled their advantage when he headed home Modric’s free-kick.

Marcelo Brozovic’s own goal pulled one back for the hosts, before Mario Pasalic and Modric made it 4-1 at half-time.

Croatia, nine points clear of third-placed Slovakia so guaranteed a play-off place whatever happens in the final game, did not ease up in the second half as Lovro Majer scored twice and Andrej Kramaric netted with a low finish.

Spain lift Wales

Wales are officially guaranteed at least a place in the World Cup play-offs after Spain beat Greece 1-0.

The Welsh started their qualifying campaign knowing they had all but secured a play-off spot having won their Nations League group.

Spain’s win in Athens formally seals it, even if Wales finish outside the top two in their qualifying group.

Wales must finish second to have any chance of being seeded for March’s play-offs.

Teams who reach the play-offs via the Nations League are unseeded and will be away in their semi-final to a seeded nation.

Wales can guarantee a top-two finish with four points from their final two qualifiers at home to Belarus on Saturday and Belgium on Tuesday.

Wales could theoretically qualify automatically – they are five points behind Group E leaders Belgium with two games to go – but they would need the world’s number one ranked side to lose to Estonia as well as to Rob Page’s men in Cardiff.

If Wales beat Belarus and lose to Belgium – and the Czech Republic beat Estonia in their only remaining game – the play-off spot would go down to goal difference. The Czechs are currently two ahead on that metric.

Even if Wales do finish outside the top two, they now have a play-off place guaranteed.

Spain’s victory, secured by Pablo Sarabia’s goal, means they need a point from their showdown with Sweden at the weekend to secure a place at next year’s World Cup finals.

Sweden had led Group B going into the final two games but a shock 2-0 loss in Georgia earlier has handed Spain the advantage.

Wales are the fifth best ranked Nations League side, with two play-off places given to the highest ranked sides who do not finish in the top two of their qualifying group.

Belgium and Italy had already guaranteed top-two spots in their groups, leaving only France and Spain above Wales.

As Spain avoided defeat against Greece on Thursday, they secured at least a second-place finish in Group B, meaning Wales will definitely be in the play-offs whatever happens in their qualifying group.

It is significant for Wales, who have not played at a World Cup since 1958, when they also qualified via play-offs.

Portugal held

Cristiano Ronaldo failed to repeat his magic against the Republic of Ireland as 10-man Portugal were held to a goalless draw in their World Cup qualifier in Dublin.

The 36-year-old scored two last-gasp headers in the reverse fixture in September to snatch victory at the death and powered a 67th-minute effort wide with a crowd of 50,737 at the Aviva Stadium expecting the net to bulge.

He then fired across the face of goal and saw goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu deny him deep into stoppage time.

As a result, the visitors had to make do with a draw which took them to the top of Group A on goal difference ahead Sunday’s home clash with Serbia – which veteran defender Pepe will miss after being sent off for two bookable offences – when the same result or better would secure qualification for Qatar.

Ireland, whose own hopes of making it to the finals were effectively over two months ago, were good value for a point which means they can finish third with a win in Luxembourg at the weekend, and while that represents scant consolation, the unfortunate reverse in Faro is now their only defeat in nine games.

The Football Association of Ireland will assess the campaign after its conclusion to determine whether or not to extend Stephen Kenny’s stay as manager, and a creditable display against one of European football’s current powerhouses will have done him little harm.