LESS than 18 months after sensationally knocking England out of Euro 2016, Iceland qualified for the World Cup for the first time on Monday following a 2-0 win over Kosovo.
Needing victory to guarantee top spot in European qualifying Group I, goals from Everton star Gylfi Sigurdsson and Johann Gudmundsson ensured Iceland would be on the plane to Russia 2018.
It was only two years ago that Iceland qualified for a major finals for the first time, taking advantage of a tournament expanded to 24 teams but nonetheless knocking out the Netherlands in qualifying.
From there the team from the tiny island of just 330,000 people stunned Europe by not only negotiating their group but also upsetting England in the last 16, before going out to hosts France in the quarter-finals.
Now, the World Cup in Russia will also be graced by the popular northern Europeans and their colourful fans who started a clapping trend at the Euros that is sure to make its mark next year.
The fireworks blazed into the sky at the Laugardalsvollur stadium after the team coached by Heimir Hallgrimsson completed their expected victory over the European minnows Kosovo, ranked 184 by FIFA.
The result left Iceland ahead of Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey after yet another impressive qualifying campaign.
SERBIA OFF TO THE WORLD CUP
ALEKSANDAR Prijovic scored after coming on as a second-half substitute to steer Serbia to a 1-0 win over Georgia and secure a place at next year’s World Cup finals.
Prijovic struck the winner on 74 minutes in Belgrade as Serbia finished top of European qualifying Group D, with the Republic of Ireland heading to the play-offs after a 1-0 victory over Wales in Cardiff.
IRELAND THROUGH TO PLAY-OFFS, BREAK WELSH HEARTS
REPUBLIC of Ireland claimed a World Cup play-off spot at Wales’ expense after James McClean’s crisp second-half strike earned his side a 1-0 victory in Cardiff on Monday.
The West Bromwich Albion winger’s goal moved Ireland above Wales into second place in Group D below Serbia, meaning Martin O’Neill’s men will be one of the eight teams in the European play-off draw on October 17.
While Ireland remain on course for a first World Cup finals appearance since 2002, surprise Euro 2016 semi-finalists Wales saw their dream of a first appearance at the tournament since 1958 turn to dust.
Bereft of Real Madrid star Gareth Bale, and robbed of Joe Allen by a suspected concussion in the first half, Wales fell to their first defeat in the group and their first loss in a competitive home game in over four years.
The tense game at Cardiff City Stadium stands to be Chris Coleman’s last as Wales manager in a competitive fixture, the architect of last year’s Euro heroics having pledged to stand down after the current World Cup cycle.
ITALY LOCKS DOWN TOP PLAY-OFF SEED
ANTONIO Candreva lifted Italy to a 1-0 win over Albania in their final World Cup qualifying game on Monday that assures the Azzurri are top seeds for November’s play-offs.
Gian Piero Ventura’s side were already through to next month’s play-offs, but desperately needed a win in Shkoder to be guaranteed the status of top seeds in the draw on October 17.
“This was the objective we had set. I think we took another small step forward, but we continue to control the game badly and give the ball away too often,” said Ventura.
“I had faith when people said the situation was dramatic and I have faith now.”
After a tight first half, Inter Milan winger Candreva found the way through after 73 minutes at the Loro Borici Stadium.
Atalanta midfielder Leonardo Spinazzola packed a neat cross from the left for the 30-year-old who rifled into the top of the net from close range to mark his 50th selection for the Azzurri.
“We wanted to prove ourselves after the Macedonia game (1-1),” said Candreva. “Victories can’t be taken for granted. We talked and realised that we had to get back together and be solid going into the play-offs.
“We need the spirit of sacrifice, humility and that Italian character that represents us.”