Spain and Italy win home games to say in front in Group G
GIJON, Spain (AP) — Spain and Italy both scored early on their way to comfortable home victories that extended their lead in Group G of European qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
Spain defeated Israel 4-1 in Gijon, while Italy beat Albania 2-0 in Palermo in a match halted for nearly nine minutes after Albania fans threw flares onto the pitch.
The victories moved Spain and Italy to 13 points from five matches. Israel stayed with nine points and Albania six. Spain is ahead of Italy on goal difference.
Spain will host Italy in September in a match that is likely to decide the group winner.
Only the nine European group winners are guaranteed to reach the World Cup, while the eight best runners-up face a playoff.
Second-to-last-place Macedonia earned its first points with a 3-0 win at last-place Liechtenstein.
Here is a look at the Group G matches Friday:
ITALY 2, ALBANIA 0
Italy kept its cool as the flares rained down to ease to a victory over Albania as captain Gianluigi Buffon marked his 1000th match with a clean sheet.
The match had to be suspended in the 57th after Albania fans threw flares onto the pitch.
“I’m upset by the flares thrown by some of our fans,” Albania’s Italian coach Gianni De Biasi said. “I’ve been in charge of Albania for five years and I’ve seen something that’s never happened before. I would never have though I’d see something of the sort.”
The referee had already stopped the match for about a minute in the first half when flares were thrown by the visiting fans after Italy was awarded a penalty that Daniele De Rossi converted in the 12th.
An announcement was made warning fans their team could face sanctions if they continued and it had to be repeated in the 55th, but that only sparked the lighting of more flares.
Albania captain Ansi Agolli appealed to the fans before play resumed.
Ciro Immobile doubled Italy’s lead in the 71st, heading in Davide Zappacosta’s cross from the right flank.
“Apart from the first shot, Albania never troubled us and every time we went forward we could have been dangerous,” Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura said.
The 39-year-old Buffon had little to do in his 1,000th appearance as a professional although Italy did have to survive an early scare when Sokol Cikalleshi fired inches wide of the right post after just 48 seconds.
Buffon made his debut at the age of 17 in 1995, playing for Parma, before moving to Juventus in 2001.
It was Ventura’s first victory on Italian soil since taking over from Antonio Conte after the 2016 European Championship.
“Even in a match that wasn’t thrilling, we have taken a small step forward,” Ventura said. “Something important for the future of the national team is being born, when these lads understand what they can do, a new world will open up to them.”
SPAIN 4, ISRAEL 1
Spain was in control from the start against Israel, picking up the easy victory to extend its unbeaten streak in World Cup qualifiers to 58 matches.
David Silva opened the scoring in the 13th minute with a close-range shot after a nice pass by Jordi Alba through the legs of a defender, and Victor “Vitolo” Machin added to the lead in first-half stoppage time with another shot from inside the area.
Diego Costa scored the third goal early in the second half with a header off a corner, and substitute Francisco “Isco” Alarcon added the fourth just before the final whistle.
“We’ve done well against a very difficult team,” Spain coach Julen Lopetegui said. “Israel is a good team but we played at a high level.”
Israel rarely got near the Spanish area, getting its lone goal with a shot from inside the box by Lior Refaelov in the 76th.
Refaelov had forced Spain goalkeeper David de Gea to make a superb save on a header before halftime in the only time Israel significantly threatened the hosts in the first period.
Thiago Alcantara and Silva both struck the woodwork for Spain.
Silva joined Fernando Hierro as the fourth-best all-time scorer for Spain.
Before the match, there was a pro-Palestine protest outside the El Molinon stadium in Gijon.
LIECHTENSTEIN 0, MACEDONIA 3
Macedonia put an end to its four-game losing streak with a goal by Boban Nikolov before halftime and two by Ilija Nestorovski in the second half.
Liechtenstein has lost every game in the group so far, being outscored 19-1.