Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Croatia 2 - Wales 1; Belgium 1 - Macedonia 0; Serbia 2 - Scotland 0

Novi Sad was the muddy scene for the match between visiting Scotland and Serbia.  The pitch barely passed inspection after the snow had been shoveled away prior to kickoff.  Serbia were clearly the better side, but Scotland center back Grant Hanley used a timely bump to disrupt a Filip Duricic shot to make his goalkeeper's save an easier one twenty minutes into the affair.  The half was a scoreless one.

Scotland put the ball in the net not too long after the resumption of the festivities, but the strike was correctly brought back for offside.  Having seen the game flash before their eyes, Serbia went back into the ascendancy.  Duricic scored a goal during a scramble in the Scottish penalty area after a Steven Whittaker block came his way on the rebound.  Five minutes later, Scotland defender Gary Caldwell made a lazy clearance that was picked off by Nenad Tomovic at the edge of the area.  Tomovic's shot was hit into the goalkeeper's onrushing body, but the rebound was pushed into the open net by Duricic.  Serbia win 2-0, extending Scotland's winless streak in competitive fixtures to seven, an all-time Scottish record.

Wales absolutely needed a victory at home in Swansea against Croatia if they were to have any real aspirations of reaching Brasil 2014.  Joe Ledley was cynically taken down in the box by Dejan Lovren (pictured, blue #6), so Wales had a penalty kick twenty minutes into the match.  Gareth Bale converted the kick and notched a well-deserved goal on his tally after commanding the lion's share of the scoring chances in the early going by himself.  Bale nearly made it two for himself in the first half, but Croatia goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa denied him well.  Wales led 1-0 after the first forty-five.

The match slowed down in the second half, and Wales looked primed to snatch the three points.  However, thirteen minutes from the end, Lovren struck a knuckler from twenty-eight yards that seemed remote-controlled on its way into the Welsh goal, evening the score.  The Welsh defense was too sluggish to close down Ivica Olic as he dribbling slowly up the left flank, so Olic punished them with an easy cross to the center of the box.  Eduardo collected the ball and nutmegged the goalkeeper with his shot to give Croatia their first lead with three minutes left in regulation.  Croatia win 2-1 to remain at the worst co-leaders in the group.

Brussels was the site of the tussle between visiting Macedonia and hosts Belgium, who kicked off simultaneously with the match in Swansea.  Belgium had won 2-0 in Macedonia four days prior to this tilt.  Eden Hazard proved to be the danger man early for Belgium, and it was his long distance shot that began the match in earnest, though it was easily held.  Belgium did manage to put a goal into the Macedonian net in the first period, but Thomas Vermaelen was offside after the flick-on header from a free kick.  The teams went into the dressing rooms tied at zero.

Nikolce Noveski blocked a Vincent Kompany side volley with his back and the high rebound was played by Hazard off the bounce, but Hazard's missile struck and probably dented the crossbar on its way out of bounds.  Daniel Georgievski will have nightmares about Hazard after what the Belgian did to him just beyond the hour mark.  Hazard collected Georgievski's header clearance with a high boot and then dribbled at Georgievski before turning him with a feint and beating him off the dribbled.  Of course Hazard finished the play to the far post and gave Belgium a 1-0 lead.  Belgium seemed to relent over the next ten minutes following their goal, and Macedonia had the better of play, but they could not make it pay off in terms of an equalizer.  Belgium withstood the short-lived spell of pressure and emerged unscathed.  With the 1-0 victory, Belgium not only remain tied with Croatia at the top of Group A, but they also jointly cause the first elimination in UEFA qualifying for Brasil 2014.  The dishonor of being the first European casualty goes to Scotland.

Belgium 16 pts +10
Croatia 16 pts +7
Serbia 7 pts +1
Wales 6 pts -8
Macedonia 4 pts -4
Scotland OUT

Filip Duricic 60, 65

Dejan Lovren 77
Eduardo 87

Gareth Bale 21 PK

Eden Hazard 62

Match Reports:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ikiH5e7TDA0 (Serbia v. Scotland)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1fw8VFSqidE (Croatia v. Wales)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SwSL6DjicHg (Belgium v. Macedonia)

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