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Wales, Iceland move closer to Euro 2016, Italy held

Wales, Iceland move closer to Euro 2016, Italy held

LONDON: Wales and Iceland both moved closer to qualifying for the 2016 European Championship on Friday, while the game between Croatia and Italy was overshadowed by a swastika symbol that had been etched onto the pitch.

Gareth Bale’s strike moved Wales closer to a first major tournament since 1958 by scoring to secure a 1-0 victory over Belgium that lifted the country top of Group ‘B’.

Iceland are trying to qualify for its first ever tournament and came from a goal down to beat the Czech Republic 2-1 and take over the lead in Group ‘A’.

In Group ‘H’, Croatia maintained a two-point lead over Italy after a 1-1 draw at home in Split, but the talking point was the Nazi symbol that could be clearly seen outlined on the pitch — apparently etched in by someone before the game.

“We weren’t aware of it on the sidelines,” Italy coach Antonio Conte said. “Not because of the tension of the match, but you couldn’t see it. I was only told about it at the end of the match. There is so much sadness that such a thing could happen.”

With his new Real Madrid coach Rafael Benitez watching from the stands at a rocking Cardiff City Stadium, Bale chested the ball down and swept home in the 25th minute following an error by Belgium midfielder Radja Nainggolan to put Wales in front.

Chris Coleman’s side then soaked up the pressure put on them by a supremely talented Belgium team who currently sit second only to Germany in the FIFA rankings.

The result means Wales remain unbeaten in qualifying Group ‘B’ and they now top the section, three points clear of the second-placed Belgians.

More importantly, with only the top two in each group certain to qualify automatically for next year’s finals in France, they are five points clear of third-placed Israel, whose own hopes were dealt a blow in a 3-1 defeat to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The 1958 World Cup was the last major finals involving Wales, even though the country has had top players down the years such as Ryan Giggs, Ian Rush and Mark Hughes.

Led by the irrepressible Bale, who has five goals in the group, the current generation is making its mark and Wales appear poised to finally qualify with four matches still to play in the autumn, the next being away to Cyprus in September.

“We prepared well and worked hard together and we showed that. We played some good football, battled in every area and I think we deserved the win in the end,” Bale told Sky Sports.

Cyprus beat Andorra 3-1 and are tied on points with Israel. Bosnia-Herzegovina are a point further back in fifth, with Edin Visca (2) and Edin Dzeko the scorers against Israel.

Nowhere is the qualifying campaign more fascinating than in Group ‘A’, in which Iceland are well placed to advance to their first major finals and the Netherlands continue to lag in third place.

In Reykjavik, Iceland came from behind to beat the Czech Republic 2-1 and move above their opponents into first place in the section.

Borek Dockal gave the Czechs the lead, but captain Aron Gunnarsson of Cardiff City equalised and Kolbeinn Sigthorsson of Ajax then struck a 76th-minute winner.

After a dreadful start to their campaign, Guus Hiddink’s Dutch are now just three points behind the Czechs after second-half goals by PSV Eindhoven duo Georginio Wijnaldum and Luciano Narsingh clinched a 2-0 win in Latvia.

“We had to win, and we did,” said midfielder Wesley Sneijder.

Turkey, who are fourth, beat Kazakhstan 1-0 thanks to a late goal from Atltico Madrid’s Arda Turan.

Italy stretched their unbeaten run in qualifiers for European Championships and World Cups to 46 matches thanks to a cheeky chipped penalty that cancelled out a disputed opening goal for Croatia in Group ‘H’.

Italy forward Stephan El Shaarawy had tapped in from eight yards but his goal was incorrectly ruled offside. While several Italy players were protesting to the officials, Croatia resumed play and Mario Mandzukic scored on the counter-attack.

Mandzukic had an earlier penalty saved and then gave away a spot kick when he handled Andrea Pirlo’s free kick which Candreva chipped in.

Norway missed the opportunity to make up ground on Croatia and Italy and remained third — two points behind Italy — following a 0-0 draw at home against Azerbaijan.

Bulgaria are two points further back after winning 1-0 in Malta, despite Ilian Micanski missing a penalty on the stroke of half-time. Ivelin Popov scored in the 56th minute to hand Bulgaria only their second win of the qualifying campaign.

Published in Dawn, June 14th, 2015

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