Perfection is never easy, as Spain and Italy found out Thursday in European Championship qualifying.
Both kept perfect records, moving to five wins from five, but Italy needed two late goals to beat Armenia and Spain barely held on for a 2-1 win over Romania with 10 men.
They’re now all but assured of qualifying for next year’s championship, barring a dramatic collapse in their last five games.
Elsewhere, Switzerland couldn’t turn dominance into goals in a 1-1 draw with Ireland, while Israel’s bid to reach its first European Championship took a blow as it was held to the same score by North Macedonia.
SPAIN BATTLES TO WIN
Robert Moreno never planned to be Spain coach, and his first match since being given a permanent contract was tinged with sadness.
There was a minute of silence for Luis Enrique’s daughter, 9-year-old Xana, who died last week after a five-month battle with bone cancer. Moreno was assistant to Luis Enrique, but was named interim coach in March when his predecessor stepped aside for family reasons.
A penalty from Sergio Ramos and a close-range shot from Paco Alcácer gave Spain a 2-0 lead but Romania responded with a headed goal from Florin Andone. There was a tense finish after Spain had defender Diego Llorente sent off for a foul which denied Romania a clear scoring chance on a counterattack.
Sweden and Norway made light work of Group F’s two outsiders. Second-place Sweden had few problems in a 4-0 win over the Faeroe Islands to stay second, five points off Spain, and Norway won 2-0 at home against Malta.
ITALY LEAVES IT LATE
Roberto Mancini was left frustrated as his Italy team needed until the 77th minute to take the lead in a 3-1 win over 10-man Armenia.
With Italy on 15 points, eight more than third-placed Bosnia and Herzegovina, it’s a matter of when, not if, they’ll secure one of the two qualifying spots.
“I knew it was going to be a difficult game. We did not start well and Armenia scored, but we reacted,” said Mancini, whose team was missing four injured players.
Armenia scored in the 11th on a counter after sloppy Italian passing, but Italy equalized through Andrea Belotti before Armenia’s scorer Aleksandre Karapetyan was sent off for a second yellow card. Despite having a man extra, Italy struggled to break down Armenia’s defense.
However, Lorenzo Pellegrini eventually made it 2-1 to Italy with a header before Belotti added a third, his eighth goal in nine games for club and country this season.
Also in Group J, second-place Finland’s 1-0 win over Greece marked the sixth time in 12 months the Finns won a competitive game with Norwich forward Teemu Pukki scoring the first goal and without conceding.
Finland has never played a World Cup or European Championship but is now second with a five-point cushion over Bosnia and Herzegovina, which beat Liechtenstein 5-0.
Slick passing wasn’t enough for Switzerland to beat a stubborn Irish team in a 1-1 draw which leaves the Nations League semifinalists’ hopes of qualifying in the balance.
Fabian Schär and Breel Embolo teamed up to slice through the Irish defense in the 74th minute, Schär finishing off the move with his first international goal since 2016.
Ireland responded in simple but effective style, with James McClean lofting in a cross from the sideline for tall forward David McGoldrick to head in.
That keeps Switzerland third in Group D with five points. That’s three off second-place Denmark, which hammered Gibraltar 6-0, but Switzerland has played one fewer game and two fewer than the Irish, who lead the group on 11 points.
ISRAEL HITS A SNAG
Israel hasn’t played at a major tournament since the 1970 World Cup, and its most promising qualifying campaign in years hit a snag in a 1-1 draw with North Macedonia.
The qualifying competition’s top scorer Eran Zahavi racked up his eighth goal of the campaign for Israel, but Arijan Ademi hit back soon after for the visitors.
Israel stays second in Group G, four points behind leader Poland, which plays Slovenia on Friday.
By JAMES ELLINGWORTH AP Sports Writer