Spain, Italy level atop group at halfway stage


Halfway through European qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, there is little to divide some of the teams.

Spain and Italy continued their tense battle for top spot in their group with comfortable victories on Friday.

The two countries remained tied atop Group G after Spain defeated Israel 4-1 in Gijon, while Italy beat Albania 2-0 in Palermo in a match halted for nearly nine minutes after Albania fans threw flares onto the pitch.

Serbia and Ireland are also level on points at the top of Group D. Serbia won 3-1 at Georgia to move top on goal difference after Ireland was held to a goalless draw by 10-man Wales.

Croatia moved three points clear of Iceland in Group I after beating Ukraine 1-0 for its fourth successive victory.

Only the group winner automatically secures a spot for the World Cup in Russia. The second-place team must go through a playoff to make it to the 2018 tournament.

Here is a look at each European qualifying group in play on Friday: Group G Italy kept its cool as the flares rained down to ease to a victory over Albania as captain Gianluigi Buffon marked his 1,000th match with a clean sheet.

The match had to be halted in the 57th minute after Albania fans threw flares onto the pitch.

“I’m upset by the flares thrown by some of our fans,” Albania’s Italian coach Gianni De Biasi said. “I’ve been in charge of Albania for five years and I’ve seen something that’s never happened before. I would never have thought I’d see something of the sort.”

The referee had already stopped the match for about a minute in the first half when flares were thrown by the visiting fans after Italy was awarded a penalty that Daniele De Rossi converted in the 12th.

Ciro Immobile doubled Italy’s lead in the 71st, heading in Davide Zappacosta’s cross from the right flank.

Spain remained above Italy on goal difference after extending its unbeaten streak in World Cup qualifiers to 58 matches.