Lazio striker Ciro Immobile grabbed an injury-time winner as four-time champions Italy snatched a 3-2 comeback win at Macedonia on Sunday, narrowly avoiding a World Cup qualifying embarrassment.
Italy, who had needed a late penalty to salvage a point against Group G rivals Spain on Thursday, were staring at a shock defeat in Skopje against a Macedonia side ranked a lowly 146 in the world.
Torino striker Andrea Belotti had given Italy a 24th-minute lead just four minutes after Palermo marksman Ilija Nestorokvski had crashed a drive off the crossbar for the hosts.
But Nestorokvski levelled just before the hour mark when he robbed Marco Verratti before tucking the ball past veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.
Two minutes later, Macedonia were ahead when midfielder Ferhan Hasani finished a smart move involving Goran Pandev and Nestorovski.
However Immobile put Italy back on equal terms at 2-2 with 15 minutes left after good approach work from Verratti and Antonio Candreva.
On 90 minutes, Marco Parolo had a header ruled out for offside before club teammate Immobile saved Italy with the winner two minutes into injury time, finishing off a Candreva cross.
“We were weak and let up in the second half. You can’t give anything away at international level, we had to be more ruthless,” admitted Immobile.
Italy are second in Group G with seven points but Spain lead the way on goal difference after a deserved 2-0 win over Albania in Shkoder.
Chelsea star Diego Costa tucked away the first on 55 minutes past goalkeeper Etrit Berisha who had pulled off a series of fine saves in the first half.
Nolito hit the second of the night just three minutes after coming on as a substitute for Vitolo.
“This was a very difficult match even if it appeared easy,” said Nolito. “Albania are a good side who know how to play.”
The only downside for Spain was seeing key defender and skipper Sergio Ramos suffer a left knee injury which could sideline him for three matches with his club side, Real Madrid.
In Group D, Southampton’s Dusan Tadic scored the winner as Serbia beat Austria 3-2 in Belgrade.
Newcastle’s Alexsandar Mitrovic had scored Serbia’s first two goals in the opening half as his side went top on seven points.
They lead the way on goal difference from the Republic of Ireland who beat Moldova 3-1 in Chisinau.
Wes Hoolahan fed Shane Long to score after just two minutes for Ireland but Moldova, beaten 3-0 by Serbia at home on Thursday, levelled in injury-time when Igor Bugaiov scored his first goal in five years.
West Brom’s James McClean was on target twice after the break to give Ireland the three points.
Euro 2016 semi-finalists Wales were held to a disappointing 1-1 draw by Georgia in Cardiff as their push to reach a first World Cup since 1958 hit a roadblock.
The draw followed a 2-2 stalemate against Austria four days ago as Chris Coleman’s side were left to regret not making the most of a host of chances in the first half.
Real Madrid star Gareth Bale headed Wales into a 10th-minute lead but Georgia hit back after the break, equalising through Tornike Okriashvili’s 57th-minute header.
Georgia nearly won the game late on when Valeri Kazaishvili struck the crossbar.
“People will look at it as two points dropped but it might be a point gained at the end of the day, in the second half,” said Coleman whose team went from top of the group to third place.
Croatia, Ukraine win
In Group I, Croatia won 1-0 in Finland at Tampere with Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic scoring the only goal after 18 minutes when Finland goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky allowed a cross from Andrej Kramaric to slip from his grasp.
Croatia have seven points and lead on goal difference from Iceland who followed up their come-from-behind 3-2 win over Finland with an impressive a 2-0 victory over Turkey in Reykjavik.
Turkey defender Omer Toprak put through his own goal in the 42nd minute before Alfred Finnbogason added a second just before the break.
Ukraine are third, two points back, after a 3-0 win over Kosovo in a game played at Krakow in Poland.