Croatia smack Norway: Czech Republic split points with Latvia

Croatia claimed a comfortable 5-1 victory over Norway in an entertaining Euro 2016 qualifier at the Stadion Maksimir on Saturday.

The Group H leaders went three points clear at the top ahead of second-placed Italy’s Saturday evening clash in Bulgaria thanks to goals from Marcelo Brozovic, Ivan Perisic, Ivica Olic, Gordon Schildenfeld and Danijel Pranjic, while they lost Vedran Corluka to a red card midway through the second half. Tarik Elyounoussi missed a penalty for Norway with 20 minutes left and Alexander Tettey netted a consolation to leave them third, four points off the lead.

The hosts started the brightest and could have taken an early lead after just five minutes with two chances in quick succession. The first came from midfielder Brozovic, whose powerful effort from just outside the 18-yard box was blocked, while Ivan Rakitic’s resulting corner found the head of Olic in the centre of the box, but he sent the ball wide.

Defender Darijo Srna was next to test Norway 10 minutes later but visiting goalkeeper Orjan Nyland collected the veteran’s cross before it became too much of a danger. Norway were unfortunate to lose Hertha Berlin midfielder Per Ciljan Skjelbred to injury minutes later and he was replaced by Jone Samuelsen.

Moments later, Stefan Johansen came forward with the first half-chance for the away side before his attempt was safely collected by Croatia stopper Danijel Subasic. Midway through the first half, Croatia close to breaking the deadlock but Brozovic fired his long-range curled effort over the bar before – down at the other end – Subasic did well to keep out Tom Hogli’s drilled shot.

It was Croatia that took the lead with a fantastic opener on the half-hour mark as Olic’s cross from the left found Brozovic 25 yards out and the 22-year-old made no mistake as he fired into the bottom corner. Three Norway players, Martin Linnes, Havard Nordtveit and Omar Elabdellaoui were booked as their frustrations got the better of them and the half drew to a close.

The visitors almost netted an equaliser when the second half got underway but Johansen’s curled effort from the right channel was kept out by the feet of Subasic, while Srna fired over for the home side. Nine minutes in, Croatia were on target again as Rakitic picked out Perisic on the right of the penalty box and the latter slotted the ball in off the far post with a controlled shot to double his side’s lead.

The hosts struck again after 66 minutes to make it difficult for their opponents to come back. Olic tapped home his close-range effort from Mario Mandzukic’s header – somehow posting the ball between the legs of Nyland. Less than five minutes later Norway were awarded a penalty after Corluka brought down Elyounoussi, which the latter struck onto the post as he failed the reduce the deficit.

Lokomotiv Moscow defender Corluka saw red not long after as he received his second booking, leaving the hosts with 10 men for the remaining 16 minutes. Norway took advantage of their extra man and pulled a goal back thanks to Tettey’s drilled long-range strike, but Croatia claimed a fourth from the head of second-half substitute Schildenfeld after 85 minutes.

Havard Nielsen and Mohamed Abdellaoue both tested Subasic late on but they could not add to their tally and, at the other end, Pranjic added the late gloss with a fine goal at the death, curling in from the edge of the box.

Czech Republic 1, Latvia 1

Vaclav Pilar’s last-minute equaliser saw Czech Republic snatch a point as they salvaged a 1-1 draw against Latvia in European Championships qualifying Group A in Prague on Saturday.

Aleksejs Visnakovs’ 30th minute-goal had put Latvia on course for their first victory in the group stages before Pilar was in the right place to turn in a rebound moments before the final whistle. The Czechs, who had started the day three points clear at the top, are now just one ahead of Iceland after they took a 3-0 victory against Kazakhstan in Astana.

Latvia had looked to be on course for a deserved victory after they were well-disciplined in defence and survived two testing corner kicks late in the first half. That could not be said for the hosts, though, as a wasted free-kick at the other end of the pitch ended up leading to Latvia’s goal after Arturs Zjuzins picked up the ball and played in a pass to Visnakovs, who had plenty of time to place his low shot beyond Petr Cech.

It was Latvia’s first goal in their qualifying campaign from open play and it put the Czechs on the back foot, with their bid to get back on level terms slowed by imprecise passing, much to the displeasure of the whistling home crowd. The second-half was more entertaining, though. First David Lafata forced a brilliant save from Latvia goalkeeper Andris Vanins in the 62nd minute with a header from the middle of the area shortly before Cech saved a 20-yard strike from Deniss Rakels at the other end.

It looked as if Latvia were going to hold on for their first win of their qualifying campaign until a through ball from Vladimir Darida played Vaclav Prochazka into the area, who saw his shot saved by Vanins. However, substitute Pilar was in the right place to turn in the rebound to the relief of the home side.

Azerbaijan 2, Malta 0

Azerbaijan prevailed in the battle of the Group H minnows as they beat Malta 2-0.

Gabala striker Javid Huseynov scored the opening goal of the game four minutes in and it looked enough to decide a tie which features two sides who had one point between them prior to kick-off. But Dimitrij Nazarov added an injury-time second for good measure to wrap things up.

Huseynov nodded in from close range after a Namik Alaskarov cross and that gave Azerbaijan plenty of confidence for the rest of the clash. Malta threatened occasionally, with Alfred Effiong drawing a save from Kamran Agayev and Steven Pisani going close, but they were unable to find a way through.

Azerbaijan – unlikely to threaten qualification despite this win – also had other chances with Vuqar Nadirov and Ruslan Gurbanov going close, before Nazarov slammed in a second when he let fly from the edge of the area with the clock well past 90 minutes.

Kazakhstan 0, Iceland 3

Eidur Gudjohnsen celebrated his return from international retirement by setting Iceland on their way to a 3-0 win over Kazakhstan in European Championship qualifying group A.

The Bolton striker opened the scoring before Birkir Bjarnason’s double completed a comfortable win. Victory ensured Iceland remained second in the table behind the Czech Republic, and ahead of World Cup semi-finalists Holland.

Johann Berg Gudmundsson saw a long-range shot saved and Gafurzhan Suyumbayev responded in kind for Kazakhstan. Gylfi Sigurdsson’s effort was blocked by Renat Abdulin before Vladimir Loginovskiy, twice, and Bauyrzhan Islamkhan threatened for Kazakhstan.

But the breakthrough came 20 minutes in when 36-year-old Gudjohnsen scored his first goal for his country since 2009, latching on to Gudmundsson’s pass and finishing clinically. Kari Arnason headed Sigurdsson’s corner wide and Gudmundsson was also off target, but Bjarnason made it 2-0 when he was left unmarked to head in Sigurdsson’s free-kick.

Arnason again failed to find the target and Aron Gunnarsson went close, while Islamkhan threatened Hannes Thor Halldorsson’s goal just before half-time. Andrei Sidelnikov saved from Gudmundsson before Kazakhstan threatened to get back in the game.

Askhat Tagybergen shot wide from 25 yards before Abdulin headed Islamkhan’s free-kick against a post in the 62nd minute. Gudmundsson twice shot wide before seeing a free-kick saved by Sidelnikov, who then fielded substitute Alfred Finnbogason’s effort. The third goal did arrive in stoppage time, though, as Bjarnason’s shot deflected off Ermek Kuantayev and left Sidelnikov helpless.