SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Artem Dzyuba scored both of Russia’s goals in a 2-1 win over Slovenia on Saturday to close in on the Russia scoring record, while Luka Modric set the outright record for most games for Croatia in a drab 1-0 win against Cyprus.
Russia’s win in front of a crowd of 13,000 — allowed amid the coronavirus pandemic under competition rules and Russian law — kept Russia at the top of Group H as it rebuilds following a disastrous end to its Nations League campaign last year. Slovenia’s momentum stalled after its upset win over Croatia on Wednesday.
When he opened the scoring in the 26th minute, Dzyuba initially intended to set up teammate Daler Kuzyaev with a cushioned header, but he got the ball back when Kuzyaev found himself blocked in by the defense. Dzyuba picked up Kuzyaev’s pass and hit the ball low past goalkeeper Jan Oblak’s outstretched hand.
Dzyuba scored again nine minutes later, showing his strength and control to collect a rebound and beat Oblak after Alexander Golovin’s initial shot had deflected onto the bar. That took Dzyuba to 29 goals for Russia, one short of the record held by Alexander Kerzhakov for goals scored for Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Slovenia beat Russia for a place at the 2010 World Cup in their last meeting 12 years ago and briefly threatened to pull off another upset when Josip Ilicic responded to Dzyuba’s second goal with a first-time shot on the bounce which left goalkeeper Anton Shunin no chance.
Ilicic had a good chance to equalize in the 67th but mistimed his shot and hit the ball straight at Shunin.
CROATIA’S NARROW WIN
Croatia was a World Cup finalist in 2018 but is struggling to show it even belongs at next year’s tournament.
Croatia was hoping for a convincing win to get its campaign back on track after the loss to Slovenia, but had to settle for 1-0 against Cyprus in a game decided by a defensive error. It was a quiet way for Real Madrid midfielder Modric to make his record 135th appearance for his country, moving ahead of former full back Darijo Srna.
Mario Pasalic headed in the only goal of the game in the 40th, just after Cyprus had brought on backup goalkeeper Neofytos Michael for the injured Demetris Demetriou. Pasalic was left with an easy finish past Michael after defender Costas Sotiriou tried to send the ball behind with a header but instead delivered it straight to the Croatia midfielder.
The win ended a five-game winless run for Croatia, which will look for another win against Malta on Tuesday. It was the first time since October 2019 that Croatia did not concede a goal.
Malta earned a rare point in World Cup qualifying with a 2-2 draw at Slovakia. The Mediterranean island nation, ranked 176th in the world, was on course for a shock win when it took a 2-0 lead early on, but Slovakia hit back with two goals early in the second half.
Slovakia has just two points from games against Cyprus and Malta, the only two teams in Group H which have never played at a World Cup.
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports