Italy held to draw, Sweden beat Spain in World Cup qualifying


Italy finally came back down to earth a bit in their first game as European champions.

Less than two months after winning the European Championship at Wembley, Italy were held to a 1-1 draw by Bulgaria in World Cup qualifying on Friday.

That ended Italy’s perfect start to the qualifying campaign but nevertheless matched Spain’s record run of 35 matches unbeaten, set between 2007 and 2009.

Spain lost 2-1 to Sweden in Stockholm to drop to second place in their group, while Belgium thrashed Estonia and England thumped Hungary in a match marred by reported racist chanting to consolidate their group leads.

Elsewhere, Germany claimed an underwhelming win against Liechtenstein in Hansi Flick’s first match as coach. Only the group winners directly qualify for the World Cup. Second-place finishers face a playoff.

Roberto Mancini had recalled all the fit players from his European Championship-winning squad for the three World Cup qualifiers and nine of the starting lineup against Bulgaria started the Euro 2020 final against England in July.

The Azzurri dominated from the start and took the lead in the 16th minute in Florence when Federico Chiesa played a one-two with Ciro Immobile before firing into the bottom right corner.

Italy seemed fully in control and had several chances to extend their lead before Bulgaria levelled five minutes from halftime against the run of play.

Kiril Despodov burst down the left before sending in a low pass for Atanas Iliev to sweep past Gianluigi Donnarumma.

Italy, who missed out on the 2018 finals in Russia, remain top of Group ‘C’, but Switzerland, four points adrift, have two games in hand.

Lithuania are bottom of the group with zero points and lost 4-1 at home to Northern Ireland.

Viktor Claesson’s second-half strike, after excellent work from Juventus winger Dejan Kulusevski, put Sweden two points clear of Spain at the top of Group ‘B’ with a game in hand.

Carlos Soler had given Spain a fifth-minute lead, but Alexander Isak levelled for the hosts just a minute later.

Spain have reached every World Cup since last failing to qualify in 1974, but have plenty of work to do to continue that run.

“Our position is getting very complicated, we no longer have it in our own hands,” admitted Spanish skipper Sergio Busquets. “We were playing well, but we missed that bit of luck. We have to continue, there are still many matches.”

Sweden have a perfect nine points from three games, while Spain have seven points from four games. Kosovo moved up to third after beating Georgia 1-0.

British media reported that Raheem Sterling and Jude Bellingham were targeted with monkey chants as England bounced back from their agonising Euro final defeat by seeing off Hungary 4-0 in Budapest.—AFP

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