ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — Russia and Croatia each recorded big wins in World Cup qualifying Thursday to set up a deciding game for an automatic spot at next year’s tournament.
Russia’s 6-0 win over last-place Cyprus earlier in the day meant 2018 World Cup runner-up Croatia had to win against a Malta team which had proved tougher than usual to beat in this qualifying cycle. Croatia responded with a 7-1 hammering.
Croatia didn’t have it all its own way, with Malta closing to 2-1 thanks to an own-goal from Croatia’s Marcelo Brozovic in the 31st minute, but ran away with the game in the second half. Lovro Majer had two goals for Croatia.
Croatia hosts Russia on Sunday, with the winner qualifying automatically and the loser going into the playoffs. A draw would send Russia to the World Cup. Croatia beat Russia on penalties in the 2018 World Cup quarterfinals and the teams drew 0-0 in Moscow in their first meeting in qualifying.
Much like Croatia, Russia had to work hard in the first half against Cyprus before showing its class in the second. Alexander Erokhin gave Russia the lead in the fourth minute but Cyprus often had the better chances either side of halftime, before two Russian goals in two minutes killed off the game.
First Smolov scored from close range to finish off a breakaway counter in the 55th, then Andrei Mostovoy beat two Cyprus defenders on his way to scoring a fine solo goal. Aleksei Sutormin added a fourth six minutes later. Late on, substitute Anton Zabolotny made it 5-0 and Erokhin scored his second.
Russia coach Valery Karpin is unbeaten in his first six games in charge of the national team since he took over following the European Championships, with only one goal conceded.
Slovakia drew 2-2 with Slovenia. Neither can qualify via the group.
This story has been corrected to show that Marcelo Brozovic, not Andrej Kramaric, scored Croatia’s own-goal.
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