Croatia qualify; Belgium, Wales secure wins in final Euro 2016 qualifiers
Kevin De Bruyne and Dries Mertens both scored a goal and provided an assist to help Belgium secure top spot in Group B and first place in the FIFA rankings with a 3-1 victory over Israel in their European Championship qualifier on Tuesday.
Victory meant that the 2-0 win of runner-up Wales over Andorra had no impact on the final standings. In a head-to-head for a third-place playoff spot, Bosnia-Herzegovina beat Cyprus 3-2 to give the 2014 World Cup finalist a shot at a second straight major tournament from the playoffs.
In Brussels, Mertens broke the deadlock in the 64th minute on an assist by De Bruyne, finishing off with a low shot. Manchester City’s De Bruyne scored with a 25-meter free kick in the 78th before Eden Hazard added a goal in the 84th leaving Israel with no more than a last minute consolation goal from Tommer Hemed.
”I am super pleased. Yes! No. 1 in the world,” said Mertens on Belgium’s unlikely run from 71st place in 2007 to sweeping past Germany and Argentina over the past weekend to top place.
Israel knew what opposition it faced and fell back in defense even if it needed victory for a shot at advancing to the playoffs.
Before a raucous crowd of 42,000 at the King Baudouin stadium, it fell to Mertens to break the deadlock. As so often, Belgium then pushed through in the final stages of the match.
”Whatever happens, we get through it,” defender Vincent Kompany said.
In a seesaw cliffhanger in Nicosia where the lead changed three times, it was finally Bosnia which pulled through to reach the playoffs, based largely on a brace of first time goals from Deportivo La Coruna’s Haris Medunjanin.
In Cardiff, it was another player in Spanish employ, Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale, who was celebrating. With the last goal of Wales’ successful campaign, he set off the party for the team’s first qualification for a major tournament since 1958 after Aaron Ramsey had scored the opener.
Belgium finished top of the group with 23 points, two more than Wales. Bosnia finished with 17 for the playoff spot while Israel was fourth with 13 points, one more than Cyprus. Andorra had none.
Malta 0-1 Croatia
Croatia edged Malta 1-0 on Tuesday evening and moved into second place in Group H to qualify automatically for Euro 2016.
Ivan Perisic struck in the 25th minute in Ta’ Qali for the victory which, coupled with Italy’s 2-1 win over Norway, ensured the Croatians a runners-up finish in the pool.
Croatia, who went into the encounter on the back of a 3-0 triumph over Bulgaria, ended up one point clear of Norway and four points adrift of group winners Italy.
The Norwegians must now win a play-off in November to reach next year’s tournament in France.
Malta, who had not won in 23 competitive home matches, finished bottom of the pool and without a victory.
The visitors dominated possession and took a deserved lead when Perisic, who had scored once and set up another goal against Bulgaria, got behind a loose ball inside the Malta area and hit a powerful right-footed effort to beat goalkeeper Andrew Hogg.
The Maltese had just one shot on goal in the encounter and it came one minute after the re-start as Clayton Failla found space just outside the area and drilled a left-footed shot that was kept out by Croatia keeper Danijel Subasic.
Perisic came close to extending Croatia’s lead just before the hour. Ivan Rakitic set him up in the box but Perisic’s right-footed shot towards the near post was saved by Hogg.
The visitors held on for a win and as news arrived that Italy had come from behind to beat Norway, Croatia celebrated on the pitch.
Wales 2-0 Andorra
Wales finished their memorable Euro 2016 campaign on a winning note as Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale crowned a Cardiff party with second-half goals against Andorra.
The 2-0 victory was not enough for Wales to win Group B as Belgium took top spot by beating Israel in Brussels.
But that will not matter to Welsh fans who had turned up in their thousands in a sell-out Cardiff City Stadium crowd to mark the nation reaching its first major tournament since the 1958 World Cup.
The party atmosphere was understandable as Wales have not qualified for anything since the days of John Charles and Ivor Allchurch.
There have been so many painful near misses over the years that fans wondered whether their team would ever make it, but they will take their place in France next summer with pride.
The long wait ended on Saturday and this night was more about the occasion than the result, Wales supporters staying behind after the final whistle to salute their heroes back on to the pitch.
The campaign finished as it had started against Andorra; the tiny Pyrenees principality where Bale’s late free-kick had rescued three precious points for Wales 13 months ago.
Andorra knew defeat in Cardiff would signal a 50th straight defeat in this competition, but this was Wales’ night and how the fans partied.
Their wish for an early goal almost arrived when Bale warmed the palms of goalkeeper Ferran Pol and Jonathan Williams cursed his misfortune when the referee waved away penalty claims after he had been bundled over by Jordi Rubio.
Hal Robson-Kanu was forced off after turning an ankle and Max Llovera almost put through his own goal when he diverted Ben Davies’ cross, Pol saving acrobatically.
The Andorra goalkeeper was displaying the knack of being in the right place at the right time and he held on to another Bale free-kick on his own line before Vokes directed a header straight at him.
Pressure was starting to mount on the Andorra goal but the visitors were belying their lowly position of 205 of 209 in the world rankings by protecting their goal well.
Bale was being kept at arms length and Ramsey’s header looped on to the bar with Pol possibly getting the faintest of touches.
Tom Lawrence came on for his Wales debut at the start of the second half, replacing the substitute David Edwards, and the young wideman showed up well to get Chris Coleman’s side straight on the front foot again.
Then five minutes after the re-start came the goal all Wales had craved.
Bale worked himself into space down the right to deliver a cross towards the unmarked Ashley Williams and, when Pol pushed his header out, the ball fell kindly to Ramsey, who finished from close range with his weaker left foot.
It was the Arsenal playmaker’s 10th goal for his country, and his first of the season, and he almost had another when fed by the impressive Lawrence and sending his shot within inches of the upright.
Bale’s dangerous free-kick was nearly touched home by Ashley Williams and then Sam Vokes and Lawrence tested Pol in the closing stages.
Wales were finishing with a flourish and Bale’s seventh goal of this Euro 2016 campaign, and his 19th for his country, came four minutes from time when Davies crossed and his shot had enough power to beat Pol.
Cyprus 2-3 Bosnia-Herzegovina
Bosnia-Herzegovina fought back from a goal down to beat Cyprus 3-2 in their final Euro 2016 qualifier in Nicosia to finish third in Group B and clinch a play-off place.
Bosnia took the lead after 12 minutes when midfielder Haris Medunjanin curled into the bottom corner from the edge of the penalty area.
Cyprus drew level in the 32nd minute when Constantinos Charalambidis tapped home after goalkeeper Asmir Begovic could only parry Georgios Efrem’s shot and went ahead nine minutes later when Nestoras Mitidis turned in Jason Demetriou’s low cross.
Medunjanin scored his second to draw Bosnia level shortly before half-time and Milan Djuric, seven minutes after coming on as a second-half substitute, earned all three points for the visitors when he headed home at the back post.
Latvia 0-1 Kazakhstan
Islambek Kuat’s second-half strike earned Kazakhstan a 1-0 victory over Latvia in their final Euro 2016 Group A qualifier in Riga on Tuesday night.
The game was heading for a goalless draw until 22-year-old midfielder Kuat surged through the Latvian defense and slotted past goalkeeper Andris Vanins in the 65th minute to earn Kazakhstan their first and only victory of the campaign.
Defeat for Marian Pahars’ Latvia means they finish bottom of the group with five points from their 10 games, while Kazakhstan were able to leapfrog them to finish second from bottom on goal difference.
Bulgaria 2-0 Azerbaijan
Bulgaria ended their unsuccessful Euro 2016 qualifying campaign with a 2-0 win at home to Azerbaijan on Tuesday night.
The hosts ensured they finished in fourth place in Group H, five points ahead of their opponents, thanks to goals from Mihail Aleksandrov and Dimitar Rangelov.
Aleksandrov opened the scoring in the 20th minute when he headed Ivelin Popov’s outswinging corner from the right low into the net.
And Rangelov sealed his side’s third win of the campaign with a 56th-minute header, meeting Zhivko Milanov’s right-wing cross.
Ivaylo Petev’s side finished the 10 games nine points behind third-placed Croatia.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.