Portugal advances to playoff final

Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal moved a big step closer to the World Cup with a hard-fought 3-1 home win over Turkey in the playoffs of European qualifying on Thursday.

Portugal opened a two-goal lead in the first half but only saved the victory after Turkey missed an 85th-minute penalty kick at the Estádio do Dragão in Porto that would have leveled it at 2-2. Portugal’s third goal came in stoppage time.

Ronaldo’s 10th straight appearance at a major tournament will now come down to a winner-takes-all game against North Macedonia, which earned a stunning 1-0 win at Italy to end the European Champion’s hopes of making it to the World Cup. The game against North Macedonia will be on Tuesday in Portugal.

Portugal was in the playoffs after a heartbreaking 2-1 loss to Serbia at home in the final Group A game in November, when it opened the scoring but conceded the deciding goal in the 90th. A draw would have been enough for the hosts to qualify as group winners.

Ronaldo has played in soccer’s showcase event four straight times. He also played in four consecutive European Championships, winning the title in 2016.

Ronaldo is the only player to have scored at least once in the finals of nine top tournaments in a row, a streak that started at Euro 2004 in Portugal.

Portugal is trying to qualify for the World Cup for the sixth straight time.

WALES 2, AUSTRIA 1

Gareth Bale his enduring value for Wales by scoring two goals — including a sensational free-kick — in a win over Austria on Thursday, leaving his country one more victory demonstrated away from a first World Cup in 64 years.

A peripheral figure at Real Madrid this season, Bale continues to deliver for Wales and his double in the playoff semifinal at Cardiff City Stadium took his record all-time goal tally for the national team to 38.

Surely he hasn’t scored a better one than the 25th-minute free-kick with his left foot that soared over the defensive wall and swerved just inside the near post, almost off the underside of the crossbar.

His second strike was of the highest quality, too, as Bale met a low cross into the penalty area with a touch and — while facing away from goal — a rising shot on the turn that flew into the far corner.

Marcel Sabitzer’s 64th-minute effort, which deflected in off the outstretched boot of Wales defender Ben Davies, gave Austria hope but the Welsh held on as they closed in on a second-ever appearance at a World Cup, and a first since 1958.

Wales will host either Scotland or Ukraine — the other two teams in Path A of the playoffs — for a place in the tournament in Qatar over November and December. Their semifinal match was postponed until June because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

SWEDEN 1, CZECH REPUBLIC 0

Robin Quaison kept alive Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s hopes of playing in another World Cup for Sweden.

With the suspended Ibrahimovic watching on, Quaison came off the bench and scored in the 110th minute as Sweden beat the Czech Republic after extra time to advance to one of the playoff finals in European qualifying for the World Cup on Thursday.

It was a well-taken goal, too, with Quaison exchanging passes with Alexander Isak before slotting home a low finish from close range at the Friends Arena in Stockholm.

Sweden must now travel to play Poland on Tuesday in a shootout for a place in the tournament in Qatar over November and December.

The 40-year-old Ibrahimovic should be available for that match after serving his suspension, though he has been troubled by an Achilles tendon injury in recent weeks.

The Czechs missed out on qualifying for a first World Cup since 2006. Sweden reached the quarterfinals at the 2018 tournament in Russia.

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