Anti-Serb chants mar World Cup qualifying

Mario Mandzukic struck a first-half hat trick for Croatia to hand Kosovo’s 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign a bitter setback on Thursday.

The team from the tiny Balkan nation earned a credible 1-1 draw in Finland last month in its competitive international debut and was looking to spring another surprise against heavy favourite Croatia.

But Croatia and Mandzukic had different ideas, and won 6-0. It was the first competitive home game for Kosovo but played in Albania’s northern city of Shkodra, as Kosovo has no stadium certified by UEFA.

All 16,000 seats in Shkodra’s recently renovated stadium were filled.

Kosovo became a UEFA member in May, joined FIFA a week later, and was fast-tracked into World Cup qualifying though many nations still have not recognized it.

Proving the sensitivity of the move, Croat fans started chanting in Serbo-Croatian “Kill, kill the Serbs” in the second half, and they were echoed and followed by Kosovo fans, too, in Albanian.

Croatia was without star midfielders Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric but had another star available: Mandzukic ruthlessly exploited Kosovo’s inexperience and needed just six minutes to open the scoring off a pass from Andrej Kramaric.

And that was just the beginning for the striker.

In the 24th, Mandzukic met Ivan Perisic’s cross to head home and double the lead, and completed his hat trick with another header 10 minutes before the interval, this time using a cross from Sime Vrsaljko, for his 27th goal in 71 internationals.

With the damage done and the result beyond doubt early, Mandzukic was substituted by Nikola Kalinic in the 58th.

Matej Mitrovic, Perisic and Kalinic added one each for Croatia to finish Kosovo off.

With only the winner qualifying automatically, Croatia is tied atop Group I with Iceland, on four points. Ukraine and Turkey have two points after their 2-2 draw. Kosovo is at the bottom of the group with one.

Italy-Spain draw opens door for Albania

Former world champions Italy and Spain played to a 1-1 draw on Thursday, giving a chance for unheralded Albania to take the lead in their Europe qualifying group.

Spain lost to Italy in the round of 16 at the European Championship, and was set for a measure of revenge in Turin.

Spain’s Vitolo scored in the 55th minute following a rare mistake from veteran Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.

But Daniele De Rossi converted a penalty with eight minutes remaining after Eder was tripped by Sergio Ramos, and preserved his team’s formidable home record. Italy has won 43 World Cup qualifiers, drawing the other seven.

Arnautovic to Austria’s rescue

Marko Arnautovic twice came to Austria’s rescue to draw 2-2 with Wales in the group where Wales, Serbia, Austria, and Ireland are separated only on goal difference at the top.

Knowing the Euro 2016 semifinalists underperformed, it was a frustrating night for Gareth Bale.

“We know we weren’t at our best tonight — it was a difficult game,” Bale told British broadcaster Sky Sports. “But this is what we’ve grown up to do. We grind out results when we need them.

“When we don’t play well, we defend solidly as a team, and we get something from the game. We are a little bit frustrated.”

Wales took the lead with a slick goal in the 22nd minute, with Joe Allen volleying into the net. It was cancelled out inside six minutes by Stoke teammate Arnautovic’s downward header.

Austria conceded again in clumsy circumstances just before halftime. Sam Vokes flicked on Bale’s long throw-in, James Chester prodded goalward, and goalkeeper Robert Almer saved. But the rebound hit Kevin Wimmer, who inadvertently diverted the ball into his own net.

Three minutes in the second half, though, Arnautovic equalized again after seizing on Allen’s misdirected pass and darting through a huge hole in the Wales defence.

Also in Europe: 

  • Liechtenstein 0-2 Albania 
  • Iceland 3-2 Finland
  • Turkey 2-2 Ukraine
  • Macedonia 1-2 Israel 
  • Republic of Ireland 1-0 Georgia 
  • Moldova 0-3 Serbia  

Son to the rescue

Son Heung-min can’t seem to do anything wrong.

Son came to South Korea’s rescue in Asian qualifying for the World Cup when he scored the winner against Qatar on Thursday.

The South Koreans looked set to lose for the first time in 11 qualifying matches when they trailed Qatar 2-1 at halftime. Then Ji Dong-won equalized in the 56th minute, and two minutes later Son separated from his marker and curled his shot in.

He celebrated with a dab, to more cheers from the home crowd in Suwon. It was his sixth goal in seven appearances for South Korea and Tottenham this season.

“The important thing is to win and we did that,” Son said. “After Qatar scored, we regrouped, kept our focus and came back.”

Son missed South Korea’s last qualifier, a goal-less draw in Syria, but has his side second in Group A, behind Iran on goal difference after three of 10 matches.

Also in Asia:

  • China PR 1-0 Syria
  • Uzbekistan 0-1 Iran
  • Japan 2-1 Iraq
  • United Arab Emirates 3-1 Thailand 
  • ​Saudi Arabia 2-1 Australia 

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