London: Croatia proved too strong for bitter Balkan rivals Serbia in a World Cup Group A qualifier in Zagreb on Friday, winning their first meeting as independent nations 2-0. In other early action Germany, playing without any recognised strikers, triumphed 3-0 in Kazakhstan to stay top of Group C while there were also unlikely away wins for Iceland and Albania.
Iceland beat Slovenia 2-1 while Group E rivals Albania recorded a surprise 1-0 victory in Norway to move within a point of leaders Switzerland who play in Cyprus on Saturday. Portugal picked up a precious away point after fighting back from 3-1 down to draw 3-3 with Israel in Tel Aviv, leaving those two sides with eight points in Group F.
Israel and Portugal are four points behind leaders Russia whose match against Northern Ireland was postponed until Saturday following heavy snow in Belfast. In Zagreb, Croatia's veteran striker Ivica Olic scored one goal and set up another to sink Serbia in an intense and passionate derby match.
Victory lifted the Croatians to the top of the group with 13 points from five games, three more than Belgium who are away to Macedonia later on Friday. Serbia have four points from five matches ahead of a home game against Scotland on Tuesday.
Mario Mandzukic fired Croatia ahead midway through the first half when Olic capitalised on a mistake by Aleksandar Kolarov and squared the ball to his strike partner who prodded it home past two defenders from close range. The 33-year-old Olic doubled the home team's advantage in the 37th minute, chesting the ball in from five metres from a teasing Darijo Srna free kick after Kolarov was booked for a rash tackle on Mandzukic.
The match was played under tight security amid fears of crowd trouble but apart from sporadic abuse from home supporters directed at Serbia's players, it was incident-free after both federations agreed not to take away fans to either fixture. The two sides, meeting for the first time as independent countries following the violent break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, play each other again in Belgrade on September 6.
Germany, playing without a recognised striker for the first time in a competitive match under coach Joachim Loew, eased past lowly Group C rivals Kazakhstan in Astana. Two goals in three minutes midway through the first half from midfielders Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mario Goetze, playing in a forward role, put the Germans in control.
Thomas Mueller grabbed the third in the 74th minute of a lacklustre second half. Germany have 13 points from five games. Sweden, playing Ireland later on Friday, have seven points from three matches. Portugal found things much tougher than they might have expected in Tel Aviv even though they took the lead in the second minute.
The visitors were 3-1 down after 70 minutes but two late goals, including one in stoppage time, forced a 3-3 draw. Bruno Alves silenced the 40,000 crowd with the early opener but Israel rallied thanks to Tomer Hemed, Eden Ben Bassat and Rami Gershon. Helder Postiga and Fabio Coentrao then saved the day for Portugal. More European qualifying ties were taking place later on Friday including world champions Spain against Finland.