Slovakia won a three-way fight for second place in Group F of European qualifying for next year’s World Cup thanks to a 3-0 victory over Malta and the 2-2 draw between Slovenia and Scotland on Sunday.
England, which was already sure of first place and an automatic berth in the tournament in Russia, beat Lithuania 1-0 to conclude an undefeated campaign with 26 points from a possible 30.
Slovakia finished ahead of Scotland on goal difference and must wait to see if it has clinched a place in the playoffs, containing the eight best runners-up from the nine groups. The group stage finishes on Tuesday.
The Scots started the final round in second place and would have guaranteed a playoff spot with a victory in Ljubliana.
They went 1-0 up through Leigh Griffiths, then equalized for 2-2 in the 88th through Robert Snodgrass. Bostjan Cesar’s red card in injury time left Slovenia a man down for the final three minutes, but Scotland couldn’t find a winner.
Slovakia had it easy, as expected, at home to last-place Malta as Adam Nemec scored twice and Ondrej Duda added a third goal.
Slovenia was fourth, three points behind Scotland and Slovakia.
Harry Kane scored England’s winner against Lithuania from the penalty spot.
SCOTLAND’S NEAR MISS
Scotland coach Gordon Strachan consoled his players as they lay on the field after the final whistle, with the country having missed out on World Cup qualification for the fifth straight time.
The Scots were left to rue not necessarily the result in Ljubliana, but the home draw to Lithuania and conceding a last-gasp equalizer at home to England.
Goals by halftime substitute Roman Bezjak in the 52nd and 72nd minutes turned the game in Slovenia’s favor, only for Snodgrass to hook in an equalizer in the 88th and leave Scotland within a goal of the playoffs.
The Scots had two chances after Cesar’s red card, but both efforts were saved.
SLOVAKIA’S WAITING GAME
Slovakia ended qualifying on 18 points like Scotland but with a superior goal difference of plus 10 compared to Scotland’s plus 5. Slovakia now must wait to see how the remaining groups finish across the next two days.
The Slovaks lost four of their 10 matches — more than Scotland and Slovenia — but still finished second because they won their other six.
Malta was last on one point, which came from its home draw against Lithuania.
KANE SCORES AGAIN
A successful, if drab, qualifying campaign by England finished in apt fashion in Vilnius with an underwhelming victory.
With his side already guaranteed first place, England coach Gareth Southgate experimented with a three-man defense and gave debuts to defender Harry Maguire and midfielder Harry Winks.
It was a more famous Harry that scored the winner, with Kane converting a 27th-minute penalty after Dele Alli was fouled. It was the Tottenham striker’s 15th goal in his last 10 games for club and country.
In 10 qualifying matches, England dropped points just twice — in draws at Slovenia and Scotland — but public expectation appears to be low heading into the World Cup.
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80