BELGRADE, Oct 9 (Reuters) - Serbia qualified for the 2018 World Cup after a 74th-minute goal by substitute Aleksandar Prijovic gave them a 1-0 home win over Georgia on Monday and enabled them to finish top of Europe’s Group D with 21 points from 10 games.
It is the second time Serbia have reached the finals as an independent nation, having been knocked in the group stages of the 2010 tournament in South Africa and then missing the next three major soccer events.
Prijovic grabbed the winner with a fine finish to delight anxious home fans in Red Star’s Rajko Mitic stadium, who lit flares to celebrate after he scored while fireworks were set off by the organisers after the final whistle.
“Thank you very much for your fantastic support and we look forward to playing for you in Russia,” Serbia’s captain Branislav Ivanovic said in an on-pitch address to the crowd.
Serbia piled on the pressure from the offset but Georgia looked more likely to score in the first half.
With the home side looking nervy and disjointed, the Georgians came close in the 17th minute when midfielder Valerian Gvilia forced a good save from Serbia keeper Vladimir Stojkovic.
The Serbians carved out their first chance in the 39th minute, when visiting keeper Giorgi Makaridze blocked Dusan Tadic’s shot from a tight angle.
Jeered off by their supporters at halftime, Serbia came out with renewed purpose after the break and defensive midfielder Nemanja Gudelj fired narrowly over the bar in the 48th minute.
Shortly afterwards, striker Aleksandar Mitrovic saw his close-range header superbly saved by Makaridze and then sliced another wide of the far post as the home side threw men forward.
Ivanovic headed inches wide after a corner the 67th minute and Nemanja Matic had a shot cleared off the line moments later as Serbia besieged the Georgian goal with a flurry of crosses from either flank.
Prijovic finally broke the deadlock with a composed close-range finish after strike partner Mitrovic found him with a fine low cross following Ivanovic’s darting run through the middle.
Serbia held on comfortably in the closing stages, knowing that they were safely through as Ireland won 1-0 at Wales to seal second place in Group D and book a playoff berth. (Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic; Editing by Ian Chadband)