Two-goal Romelu Lukaku fired Belgium’s golden generation into next year’s World Cup finals with Germany and Switzerland also sealing their tickets to the Brazil extravaganza on Friday.
Belgium, boasting one of the most talented squads in Europe, will return to the global showpiece for the first time since 2002 after a 2-1 win in Croatia guaranteed top spot in Group A.
Perennial finalists Germany’s 3-0 home win over Ireland, with goals from Sami Khedira, Andre Schuerrle and Mesut Ozil, put them through from Group C while the Swiss won 2-1 in Albania to wrap up Group E.
The Netherlands, with Robin van Persie hitting a hat-trick in an 8-1 demolition of Hungary, and Italy had sealed their passage to the finals before Friday’s penultimate round of qualifiers.
Holders Spain moved to the brink of qualification from Group I after captain Xavi and substitute Alvaro Negredo struck in a labored 2-1 win at home to Belarus.
Group F leaders Russia, with a 4-0 victory in Luxembourg, and England, who beat Montenegro 4-1 at Wembley, remain in pole position in Group H ahead of Tuesday’s final round of matches.
Victory on a wet night in Zagreb prompted joyous celebrations from the Belgian players in front of a sizeable and vociferous contingent of travelling fans.
Lukaku broke the deadlock from Steven Defour’s defense-splitting pass and doubled the lead seven minutes before the break, racing away from the halfway line before lifting the ball over prone goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa and walking the ball into the net.
Sweden captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic struck a late winner to earn a 2-1 victory over Austria that secured second place behind the Germans and one of the playoff spots.
The eight best group runners-up advance to a two-legged playoff next month to fill the last four European places.
Goals from Xherdan Shaqiri and Michael Lang clinched Switzerland’s passage with their successful campaign built around a rock-solid defense that has conceded just six goals.
Iceland or Slovenia will finish second in the group.
Iceland, 2-0 winners over Cyprus on Friday, will secure that spot if they can win in Norway on Tuesday while Slovenia, who face the Swiss in Berne, stayed in contention thanks to Milivoje Novakovic’s hat-trick in a 3-0 drubbing of the Norwegians.
Spain’s win in Palma de Mallorca put them three points clear of France with one match to play and a point against Georgia in Albacete on Tuesday will secure a berth in Brazil.
Russia need a point from their final game away at Azerbaijan to qualify after brushing aside Luxembourg to move three points ahead of Portugal.
A late blunder from goalkeeper Rui Patricio gifted Israel a 1-1 draw in Lisbon to leave Portugal, who led through a first half goal from Ricardo Costa, staring at the playoffs.
England will win their section with victory at home to Poland. Roy Hodgson’s side had to remain patient to overcome stubborn Montenegro.
Wayne Rooney eased England’s nerves when he struck soon after the restart and a Branko Boskovic own-goal, a stunning third on his debut by Andros Townsend, and an injury-time penalty from Daniel Sturridge secured victory.
Ukraine remain one point behind and must hope England slip up against the Poles. Andriy Yarmolenko scored the only goal as the Ukrainians edged Poland 1-0 in Kharkiv which all but ended the Euro 2012 co-hosts’ hopes of progressing.
Bosnia and Greece are neck-and-neck on 22 points at the top of Group G after home wins on Friday.
Bosnia thumped Liechtenstein 4-1 while a Martin Skrtel own-goal handed Greece a 1-0 success at home to Slovakia.
Nicklas Bendtner netted both goals in Denmark’s 2-2 draw at home to Italy in Group B. Alberto Aquilani’s stoppage-time equalizer rescued a point for the visitors.
The Danes remain third, level on 13 points with Bulgaria who lost 2-1 in Armenia.
Fickle winds produced farcical scenes yesterday on day two of the America’s Cup challenger series in Auckland, as the so-called “flying” yachts spent almost as much time in the water as above it. “I’m not sure today is a really accurate read because it’s so puffy, it’s shifty,” British sailing legend Ben Ainslie said after his Ineos Team UK maintained their perfect start to the Prada Cup series with a third straight win. The series would determine which of the 23m yachts — which fly above the water balanced on hi-tech foil arms — would challenge defending champion Team New Zealand for
VIRUS RISK: India’s Saina Nehwal tested positive for COVID-19 at the Yonex Thailand Open, while three other players were being retested after receiving conflicting results Taiwanese badminton star Tai Tzu-ying yesterday returned to international competition after an eight-month break with a victory at the Yonex Thailand Open in Bangkok. Twenty-six-year-old Tai, 26, the top-seeded player at the tournament, met 18-year-old Thai player Benyapa Aimsaard in the opening round and narrowly won 21-18, 26-24. Her previous tournament was the Yonex All England Open in March last year, where she won the women’s singles title, before the BWF World Tour was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Benyapa was a last-minute replacement after another Thai player pulled out of the event. It was a rollercoaster match for Tai.
NO FAIRY TALE: Non-league Marine tried to bridge the biggest gap between opponents in FA Cup history, but the part-timers fell to a 5-0 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur Leeds United on Sunday suffered a humiliating FA Cup exit against Crawley Town as the League Two side swept to a stunning 3-0 win, while eighth-tier Marine’s hopes of causing the competition’s greatest shock were crushed in a 5-0 defeat against Tottenham Hotspur. After the spiking COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc with matches across the third round on Friday and Saturday, the FA Cup was back on more familiar ground on Sunday as Leeds became the competition’s latest big name to be knocked out by feisty underdogs. While Marine’s romantic adventure was cut short by a Carlos Vinicius hat-trick, and Chelsea and Manchester
DOUBLES VICTORY: The men’s doubles pairing of Taiwanese Lee Yang and Wang Chi-lin downed Malaysians Ong Yew Sin and Teo Ee Yi, and face South Koreans today Men’s badminton world No. 2 Chou Tien-chen yesterday marched into the semi-finals of the Thailand Open, defeating younger opponent Lee Zii-jia 21-17, 21-15 after a rally, while Tai Tzu-ying had no trouble getting past her Canadian opponent in the women’s singles. The top male Taiwanese credited calm and focus in securing his win after briefly falling behind against his 22-year-old Malaysian opponent. “I think I had more patience against him and I won most of the long rallies,” the 31-year-old Chou said of Lee. “He wanted to attack [too much] and maybe he lost some focus,” Chou said. In today’s semi-finals, second-seeded Chou faces