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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Spain ease past Albania to secure World Cup spot after Pique faces mixed reception

Former world champions produced a classy display but there was plenty of boos aimed at the Barcelona defender for his stance on Catalan independence. 

Spain's players celebrate after securing their place in next year's tournament finals in Russia (AP Photo/Alberto Saiz)</p>
Spain's players celebrate after securing their place in next year's tournament finals in Russia (AP Photo/Alberto Saiz)</p>

Former World Cup winners Spain secured a berth at next year’s World Cup with an easy 3-0 victory over Albania despite the home crowd’s barracking of defender Gerard Pique highlighting divisions in the country amid domestic political turmoil.

Pique was booed by fans during training sessions this week because of his support for an independent Catalonia and was withdrawn after an hour following a shaky performance at the heart of the Spanish defence and receiving a mixed reception from the home crowd.

Rodrigo Moreno, Isco and Thiago Alcantara scored within 11 first-half minutes to ensure victory for the 2010 tournament winners. An unexpected 1-1 draw for their closest rivals Italy at home to Macedonia ensured that the Spanish will finish the top of their group.

“Now is the time to focus on positive things, in football and in the country on the whole," Spanish manager Julen Lopetegui told reporters after a classy performance which cemented the team’s reputation as one of the favourites for 2018.

Iceland look set to return to the world stage after unexpectedly reaching the quarter-finals at the European Championships last year. Their 3-0 victory in Turkey saw them leap to the top of the group above Croatia who could only draw 1-1 with Finland.

With a final game against lowly Kosovo, Iceland are favourites to win the group and make it to Russia for a second consecutive major tournament. The Icelanders made their mark at Euro 2016 in France with the team making the most of limited talents while the vocal support of the fans belied the country’s status of the smallest nation ever to reach a major final.

Wales is set for a showdown with the Republic of Ireland after victories for both sides on Friday left them both with the opportunity to finish second in the group and a possible play-off. Either side could even secure the top spot in the group if leaders Serbia lose their final game to Georgia on Monday after an unexpected 3-2 reversal to Austria.