Spain, Portugal and Croatia all put themselves one game away from securing World Cup qualification, while Sweden’s hopes took a heavy blow with a surprising loss Thursday.
Spain beat Greece 1-0 thanks to Pablo Sarabia’s penalty to overtake Sweden, which slipped to a 2-0 loss at already-eliminated Georgia. Spain plays host to Sweden on Sunday in one of three winner-takes-all matches to decide World Cup places.
Another decisive fixture pits Portugal against Serbia after a frustrating 0-0 away draw for Cristiano Ronaldo’s team against Ireland. Croatia and Russia also face off for a spot in Qatar after each had a big win Thursday.
Only group winners qualify automatically, and second-place teams head to the playoffs along with two teams selected on their record in the Nations League. The 12 teams in the playoffs will be fighting for three places at next year’s World Cup in Qatar in brackets of four teams.
Portugal’s goalless draw in Dublin against Ireland saw it ease ahead of group rival Serbia in the standings on goal difference. That means a draw will be enough for Portugal to qualify automatically when it plays host to Serbia in Lisbon on Sunday.
Sweden had its fate in its own hands in qualifying, and let it slip in its 2-0 loss to Georgia. That gave Spain the chance to overtake Sweden and take the advantage ahead of the decisive game against the Swedes on Sunday. Spain had to work hard in its 1-0 win over Greece, which ensured Greece can’t qualify.
Russia and Croatia each won big against overmatched opponents in games that were merely a warm-up for their qualifying decider. Croatia plays host Russia on Sunday and the winner will qualify for the World Cup automatically, with Russia going through if it’s a draw. Russia laid down a marker with a 6-0 demolition of Cyprus and Croatia responded with a 7-1 hammering of Malta.
Germany has already qualified for the World Cup and cruised to a 9-0 win against Liechtenstein after early concerns for midfielder Leon Goretzka when he was struck in the head and neck by an opponent’s boot. North Macedonia leads the race for a playoff spot after beating Armenia 5-0 and will secure second place with a win over Iceland on Sunday. Romania’s qualifying hopes took a hit with a 0-0 draw against Iceland.