x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Portugal make play-offs as Slovakia book place

Portugal complete stage one of their unlikely qualifying turnaround, while Switzerland and Slovakia reach the World Cup finals.

Portugal's Simao Sabrosa, centre, celebrates with teammates Raul Meireles, left, and Miguel Veloso after scoring their second goal against Malta.
Portugal's Simao Sabrosa, centre, celebrates with teammates Raul Meireles, left, and Miguel Veloso after scoring their second goal against Malta.

Portugal completed stage one of their unlikely World Cup turnaround when a 4-0 home win over Malta on Wednesday secured them a place in the play-offs five months after they looked dead and buried. On the final night of European qualifying the two remaining automatic slots for next year's finals went to Switzerland and, into a major tournament for the first time, Slovakia, while Slovenia, Ukraine and Greece took the other two play-off berths.

Spain hammered Bosnia 5-2 away to complete a perfect qualifying campaign with 10 wins out of 10. The Netherlands, who won all eight of their games in the five-team Group Nine, were the only other team with a 100 per cent record. World champions Italy, who secured qualification with an injury-time equaliser in Ireland on Saturday, were losing 2-0 at home to Cyprus until a hat-trick by Alberto Gilardino in the last 13 minutes secured a 3-2 win.

Germany also needed a 90th minute goal by Lukas Podolski to secure a 1-1 home draw with Finland in another dead rubber. Four months ago Portugal looked down and out. The 2006 semi-finalists had lost at home to Denmark and followed that with three successive goalless draws. They were then being held 1-1 in Albania before Bruno Alves snatched an injury-time winner to start the recovery. A late equaliser against Denmark followed and, as Group One rivals Sweden and Hungary dropped points, last weekend's win over Hungary somehow put them back in command of their own destiny.

They duly delivered the victory they needed over Malta on Wednesday with goals by Nani, Simao Sabrosa ? who got two on Saturday ? Miguel Veloso and Edinho. Cristiano Ronaldo missed the game with an ankle injury but could be back in action for the November play-offs when Portugal will be among the four seeded teams. The two-legged play-offs take place on November 14 and 18. They will be seeded on the basis of the Fifa world rankings published on Friday and the draw will be made in Zurich on Monday.

Russia, France and Greece are likely to be the other seeded teams with Ukraine, Ireland, Bosnia and Slovenia pitched against them. Norway, second in Group Nine behind the Dutch, were the unlucky runners-up to miss out. Slovakia, currently Europe's 26th-ranked team, took the direct route and can celebrate a first appearance in a major tournament since they began playing as an independent nation in 1994.

Saturday's surprise home defeat by Slovenia briefly derailed them but Wednesday's 1-0 win in Poland, secured by a Seweryn Gancarczyk own goal after three minutes. Slovenia did all they could with a 3-0 win in San Marino, which was enough to secure second place ahead of Czech Republic, who drew 0-0 at home with Northern Ireland. Switzerland needed only a point to top Group Two and achieved it without too much drama via a goalless home draw with Israel.

Greece took the runners-up spot after a 2-1 win over Luxembourg. After beating Group Six winners England last week Ukraine looked odds-on to make the play-offs with a win over Andorra and any nerves they might have had were dispelled when Andriy Shevchenko scored after 22 minutes. An own goal and contributions from Oleg Gusev, Yaroslav Rakitsky, Yevgen Seleznov and Andriy Yarmolenko completed a 6-0 rout.

Croatia, who won 2-1 in Kazakhstan with a last-minute goal by Nico Kranjcar, finished third, a point behind Ukraine. England, who won their first eight qualifiers before last weekend's slip-up, finished with a 3-0 win over Belarus at Wembley helped by two goals for stand-in striker Peter Crouch. * Reuters