A penalty from Spain’s Pablo Sarabia secured a 1-0 victory in their World Cup qualifier in Athens against a lacklustre Greece on Thursday. This meant La Roja needed a point from their final group showdown with Sweden in Sevilla on Sunday to secure a place at next year’s World Cup finals in Qatar.
With nine players from the Euro 2020 squad missing this final round of matches due to injury, including crack Manchester City marksman Ferrán Torres, Marcos Lorente, Gerard Moreno, Mikel Oyarzabal and Barcelona’s creative wonderkid Pedri González, the final encounter with Sweden was always going to be a tricky affair.
Spain, playing in front of 52,000 fans in the sold-out La Cartuja stadium, had never lost a home game in World Cup qualifiers – and they kept this impressive record intact in Seville. It was a nervy affair, nonetheless, and although Spain dominated possession, the Swedes created the best opportunities through the dangerous combination of Emil Forsberg and Alexander Isak on the counter-attack.
After playing the full 90 minutes in Sweden’s 2-0 loss to Georgia on Thursday, the legendary Zlatan Ibrahimovic started on the bench and made little impact when he came on for the last 20 minutes, leaving many to question whether his continued presence is hampering Sweden’s progress. The game looked to be heading for a draw, another stodgy possession-heavy and safe performance from Spain which would, however, have been enough to take them to the finals. Mercurial striker Avaro Morato had other ideas, though, and when Olmo’s stunning strike rebounded off the woodwork Morata, who had entered the field of play just before the hour mark, calmly slotted the ball into the net, securing Spain’s World Cup berth.
“We knew it was a life-and-death situation and we wanted to qualify at any cost. Nobody said it was going to be easy and I’m happy for our people,” Sergio Busquets told reporters. “I felt more pressure now than in the Euros,” said Spain manager Luis Enrique, whose side lost to eventual winners Italy on penalties in this year’s European Championship semifinals.
It will be Spain’s 16th appearance in 22 World Cups – La Roja has qualified for every World Cup since 1978, winning its lone title in 2010 in South Africa. “I can’t imagine a World Cup without Spain,’’ said forward Brahin Díaz before the crunch Greece match.
“We have two finals ahead of us and we have to win them,’’ he pointed out. But win them they did and, while not as prolific in attack as European rivals Germany, France and England, they performed with a quiet efficiency, dominating in their trademark possession-heavy style and will surely be among the favourites for the biggest prize of all in Qatar.