Lukaku double sets Belgium on the road to Rio
Everton striker seals victory over Croatia in Zagreb that guarantees trip to World Cup
Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku breaks free of the Croatia defence to score his second goal in the World Cup qualifier in Zagreb. Photograph: Antonio Bronic/Reuters
World Cup qualifiers round-up: Two goals from Everton striker Romelu Lukaku fired Belgium into next year’s World Cup finals as their golden generation sealed a return to the global showpiece for the first time since 2002.
A 2-1 win away to Croatia ensures unbeaten Belgium will finish top of Group A and they became the third European team to secure a place in Brazil after Netherlands and Italy.
Victory on a wet night in Zagreb prompted joyous celebrations from the Belgian players in front of a sizeable and vociferous contingent of travelling fans.
“I’m super happy for the team. We always believed we could qualify and now it’s here,” Lukaku told Belgian television.
The pacy striker had only previously played 52 minutes of qualifying but, starting in place of the injured Aston Villa frontman Christian Benteke, notched his first goals of the campaign for a nation who boast one of the most talented squads in Europe.
Lukaku broke the deadlock from Steven Defour’s defence-splitting pass and doubled the lead seven minutes before the break, racing away from halfway before lifting the ball over prone goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa and walking the ball into the net.
He was brought off after 68 minutes, embracing coach Marc Wilmots as he left the rain-soaked pitch.
Croatia second-half substitute Niko Kranjcar grabbed a late consolation goal for the hosts, who have 17 points and are assured of a runners-up finish but were jeered by their fans after a lacklustre performance.
Bulgaria’s hopes of securing second place behind Italy in Group B, and a potential play-off match, suffered a huge setback after they had two players sent off in a 2-1 defeat in Armenia with the hosts netting the winner three minutes from time.
The Bulgarians had Nikolay Bodurov dismissed on the stroke of half-time and went down to nine men after 63 minutes when Svetoslav Dyakov was shown a second yellow card. Yura Movsisyan won it for Armenia when he broke clear to score.
The four-way battle for World Cup qualification from Group H became a three-team one as Ukraine beat Poland 1-0 in Kiev.
Andriy Yarmolenko’s second-half goal was enough for the home side to take the points and eliminate Poland from the reckoning in the process.
The result puts Ukraine top of the group for now, with England’s ongoing clash with Montenegro having an impact on the standings.
At the very worst Ukraine are well placed for a play-off spot, while their co-hosts from last summer’s European Championships cannot make Brazil next summer.
In Group C, the Faroe Islands claimed their first point of the qualifying campaign in a 1-1 draw with Kazakhtsan in Torshavn.
Hallur Hansson gave the home side the lead four minute before half-time, with Kazakhstan, who play in Dublin on Tuesday, equalising through Andrey Finonchenko in the 55th minute.
Northern Ireland’s World Cup qualifying campaign stumbled to another new low as they followed up defeat in Luxembourg with agony in Azerbaijan as they lost 2-0 in Baku.
Manager Michael O’Neill had demanded a response to the dismal defeat last month but instead was handed another humiliating setback as goals from Rufat Dadasov and Mahir Shukurov secured the hosts a win at the Bakcell Arena.
Northern Ireland had enjoyed the best of a goalless first half but their night took a dreadful turn for the worse after the break, culminating in an injury-time red card for Jonny Evans.
What awaits in Israel on Tuesday is anybody’s guess, with Evans and defensive partner Gareth McAuley both suspended alongside midfielder Oliver Norwood.
It might have been different had Jamie Ward’s point-blank header not rebounded off the Azerbaijan goalkeeper at 0-0 but the visitors can have few excuses.