Italy kept Spain from opening a significant advantage atop Group G by scoring two late goals and salvaging a 3-2 win at Macedonia on Sunday in European qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
Spain got off to a slow start at Albania but eased to a 2-0 victory behind second-half goals by Diego Costa and Manuel “Nolito” Agudo.
Italy needed an injury-time goal by Ciro Immobile to secure the hard-fought win that allowed it to join Spain atop the group with seven points.
Albania stayed with six points along with Israel, which beat Liechtenstein 2-1. Liechtenstein and Macedonia and remain without a point after three matches.
Only the group winners automatically qualify for the World Cup in Russia.
Drama in the Spanish squad
Gerard Pique says the 2018 World Cup in Russia will be his final tournament with Spain because he feels he is not wanted in the national team.
The Barcelona defender made the announcement after Spain’s 2-0 win at Albania on Sunday.
Pique said “there are people who think it’s better if I’m not here.”
The player is often jeered by many Spaniards because he is outspoken about his pro-Catalonia stance. He stirred a social media controversy during Sunday’s match by cutting the sleeves of his soccer jersey, leaving out the colours of the Spanish flag. He said he only did it because the long sleeves were bothering him.
Pique said his decision had already been made and was not directly related to this latest controversy.
Immobile clutch in injury time
Italy seemed in control against Macedonia after Andrea Belotti scored in the 24th minute, but goals by Ilija Nestorovski in the 57th and Ferhan Hasani in the 59th, both times after Italian giveaways, left the visitors in danger of a shock defeat.
Immobile equalized in the 75th and netted the important winner with a close-range header two minutes into second-half injury time, keeping Italy in a strong position.
It trails Spain on goal difference.
“It was a great response by the team as far as character is concerned,” Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura said.
Israel extends win streak
Israel picked up its second consecutive win by beating winless Liechtenstein 2-1 behind a pair of goals by Tomer Hemed.
The striker scored in the fourth and 16th minutes in the match in Jerusalem.
Maximilian Goppel pulled the visitors closer early in the second half, but Israel hung on to the victory. Liechtenstein is proving to be the weaker team in the group after being outscored 12-1 in its first three matches.