Aleksandar Mitrovic’s last-minute header snatched Serbia automatic qualification for Qatar 2022 as they won in Portugal to consign the hosts to the play-offs.
Fulham striker Mitrovic came off the bench to head home Dusan Tadic’s cross as Serbia hit back from behind to finish top of Group A and consign Cristiano Ronaldo and Co to the play-offs in March.
Portugal made the ideal start when Renato Sanches - brought in for the dropped Manchester United midfielder Bruno Fernandes - blasted them into an early lead, but Tadic equalised before half-time.
SCENES! 🤯Aleksandar Mitrović scored an injury-time winner as Serbia leapfrogged Portugal to seal their place at the 2022 World Cup! 🇷🇸🔥 pic.twitter.com/EOod5NCYARNovember 14, 2021
Serbia coach Dragan Stojkovic then threw Mitrovic on for Nemanja Gudelj and his gamble to deploy an extra forward for a defensive midfielder paid off as the Fulham striker, his country’s all-time top scorer with 44 goals in 69 appearances, delivered.
I just want someone to love me like Serbs love Mitrovic. pic.twitter.com/2f3m6qGdWbNovember 14, 2021
It seemed Portugal would hang on after Mitrovic headed inches wide in the 85th minute but the striker had the last laugh as he pulled away from his markers at the death to head home after Tadic’s cross from the right and booked Serbia's place in Qatar next year.
The result sends Cristiano Ronaldo and Co into the play-offs in March as they bid to seal their place in Qatar, the outcome will determine whether the 36-year-old Manchester United forward will feature at the winter World Cup or not.
Mitrovic - who has had 28 goal involvements for club and country this season - said Serbia’s confidence before the game was vindicated by a bold performance.
“We came here to play football and having been the better side, we earned it all,” he said. “We are reaping the rewards of hard work and the belief that we would be able to defy the odds and beat Portugal. We are overjoyed, for our country and the people first and foremost.”
Stojkovic added: “We deserved to win tonight as the lads showed so much character. This is a massive accomplishment for Serbian football. The team showed maturity and composure under the most intense pressure and I would have said the same thing if it had stayed 1-1 and we got confined to the play-offs.”
The fact it was Mitrovic's goal that secured qualification was moment of personal redemption for this striker as it was his penalty miss in the shoot-out defeat by Scotland 12 months ago meant Serbia missed out on a place at Euro 2020.
That penalty miss saw a dip in confidence and form for the 27-year-old and he subsequently found himself on the bench in the Premier League for Fulham and managed just three league goals all season as Scott Parker's side were relegated.
But this season under Marco Silva could not be more different as he has started the season in red-hot form, scoring 20 goals in 17 league games for Fulham this term and secured his country's place at the World Cup next year.
LATE DRAMA 😱— European Qualifiers (@EURO2024) November 14, 2021
Elsewhere, Spain also left it late to seal their place at a 12th consecutive World Cup finals as Alvaro Morata’s late goal sank Sweden 1-0 in Seville.
Luis Enrique’s side needed a point to secure top spot in Group B, while Sweden, who needed victory to leapfrog them, will head to the play-offs.
Croatia, World Cup runners-up in 2018, clinched a place at next year’s finals in another winner-takes-all clash after Fedor Kudryashov’s late own goal sealed a 1-0 win against Russia.
Russia would have finished top of Group H had they held on for a point, but Kudryashov turned a cross into his own net in the 81st minute to leave Croatia top on 23 points, one ahead of Russia who face the play-offs.
Republic of Ireland won 3-0 in Luxembourg to extend their unbeaten run to five matches as they finished third in Group A.
Luxembourg had a second-half goal disallowed with the score locked at 0-0 before the Republic finished strongly with goals from Shane Duffy, Chiedozie Ogbene and Callum Robinson.
Germany, who booked their place in Qatar with two games to go, extended their winning run under head coach Hansi Flick to seven matches by beating Armenia 4-1 in Yerevan.
Manchester City midfielder Ilkay Gundogan’s double, which included a first-half penalty, plus goals from Kai Havertz and Jonas Hofmann ensured Germany took 27 points from a possible 30 in Group J.
North Macedonia secured second spot behind Germany for a play-off place as their 3-1 home win against Iceland meant they finished one point clear of Romania.
🇲🇰 Elif Elmas's 2nd-half double earns a 3-1 win that sees North Macedonia pip Romania for a place in the European playoffs 🎉— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) November 14, 2021
Former Leeds defender Ezgjan Alioski gave the Macedonians an early lead and although Jon Dagur Thorsteinsson equalised early in the second half, Eljif Elmas struck either side of Isak Bergmann Johannesson’s dismissal.
Romania’s 2-0 win in Liechtenstein, courtesy of goals from Dennis Man and Nicusor Bancu, was not enough and they finished a point behind North Macedonia in third.
Slovakia finished in third place behind Russia in Group H after cruising to a 6-0 win in Malta, who had two players sent off.
⏰ RESULTS ⏰— European Qualifiers (@EURO2024) November 14, 2021
Cologne midfielder Ondrej Duda scored a hat-trick and Albert Rusnak fired a double, while defender Vernon De Marco was also on target for Slovakia, who played with nine men for 40 minutes.
Malta midfielders Ryan Camenzuli and Teddy Teuma were both sent off for two yellow-card offences within five minutes of the second half.
Slovenia finished fourth, level on points with Slovakia, after beating Cyprus 2-1 in Ljubljana and Greece secured third place in Group B after drawing 1-1 with Kosovo in Athens.
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