Israel beats Albania 3-0 in World Cup match played under terror threat
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Israel beats Albania 3-0 in World Cup match played under terror threat

Over 2,000 cops on duty for Saturday’s soccer qualifier near Tirana after reports of 15 arrests in alleged bomb plot

Israel's Eran Zahavi (center) celebrates after scoring a goal during the World Cup 2018 qualifier football match Albania versus Israel at the Elbasan Arena stadium in Elbasan on November 12, 2016.  (AFP PHOTO / GENT SHKULLAKU)
Israel's Eran Zahavi (center) celebrates after scoring a goal during the World Cup 2018 qualifier football match Albania versus Israel at the Elbasan Arena stadium in Elbasan on November 12, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / GENT SHKULLAKU)

Israel moved into third place with nine points in its soccer World Cup qualifying Group G by beating Albania 3-0 in Elbasan, near Tirana, on Saturday night.

The match was played under tight security measures after media reports alleged a group of 15 persons arrested in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia, had planned an attack during the game.

Albania was down a man and a goal from the 18th minute, after Berat Djimsiti was sent off with a direct red card for fouling an Israel player with only the goalkeeper to beat.

Eran Zahavi converted the penalty for Israel, which got a second goal from Dan Einbinder and a third from Eliran Atar late.

Albania's Elseid Hysaj (R) vies with Israel's Ben Sahar during the 2018 World Cup group G qualifying football match between Albania and Israel, in Elbasan on November 12, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / GENT SHKULLAKU)
Albania’s Elseid Hysaj (R) vies with Israel’s Ben Sahar during the 2018 World Cup group G qualifying football match between Albania and Israel, in Elbasan on November 12, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / GENT SHKULLAKU)

Third place would not be good enough to qualify for the tournament itself, however. Only the group winner automatically secures a spot for the World Cup in Russia. The second-place team must go through a playoff to make it to the 2018 tournament.

Israel’s next game is in Spain on March 24.

Albanian special policemen take part in a security briefing at the Elbasan Arena stadium before the 2018 World Cup group G qualifying football match between Albania and Israel, in Elbasan on November 12, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / GENT SHKULLAKU
Albanian special policemen take part in a security briefing at the Elbasan Arena stadium before the 2018 World Cup group G qualifying football match between Albania and Israel, in Elbasan on November 12, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / GENT SHKULLAKU

Albanian police had taken extreme steps to secure the match.

Israel issued a travel alert, warning fans not to travel to the game because of the terror threat.

The venue was changed for “security reasons” from the northern city of Shkoder, near the border with Montenegro, to Elbasan, 55 kilometers (30 miles) south of Tirana.

A Kosovo court on Friday ordered seven people suspected of plotting Islamist terrorist attacks to be detained for a month, for allegedly planning attacks at the game. The order followed a series of arrests in Kosovo and neighboring Albania and Macedonia in which a total of 15 suspected Islamic extremists were detained.

The local Kosovo tribunal did not elaborate on when and how the suspects were arrested. Those detained also planned attacks in Kosovo “against international and other security institutions,” a tribunal statement said.

Their aim was to “seriously intimidate the population, destabilize and destroy fundamental … social structures and then establish the Islamic State,” it added. They were plotting “terrorist attacks” with their counterparts from Albania and Macedonia against the same targets in the two countries.

A statement on Friday said 2,000 police, many more than in other matches, would be deployed for the match.

The FIFA World Cup 2018 qualification match between Israel and Italy at the Sami Ofer stadium in Haifa on September 5, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
The FIFA World Cup 2018 qualification match between Israel and Italy at the Sami Ofer stadium in Haifa on September 5, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israeli Ambassador to Albania Boaz Rodkin welcomed the police steps, saying Israel’s players felt safe.

“This is what we do in other football matches and other sports, too, due to the events in the past. That is not an unusual situation,” Rodkin told private Albanian television station Top Channel. “Sincerely I don’t think that is a bad advertisement for Albania, on the contrary.”

In other Group G games on Saturday, forwards Victor “Vitolo” Machin and Andrea Belotti helped Spain and Italy move one step closer to World Cup qualification by leading their teams comfortable wins.

Vitolo was Spain’s most incisive player and put its 4-0 victory over Macedonia beyond doubt, while Belotti scored twice in Italy’s 4-0 victory at Lichtenstein.

Spain and Italy have 10 points in Europe’s Group G, with the Spaniards ahead on goal difference. Macedonia and Lichtenstein have zero points.

Spain coach Julen Lopetegui, who remained undefeated in five matches since taking over for Vicente del Bosque, had to make several changes to his first-choice squad due to a spate of injuries.

Marc Bartra and Nacho Fernandez played in the center of the defense in place of Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos. Nacho Monreal was in for Jordi Alba at left back, Thiago Alcantara filled in for Andres Iniesta in midfield, and Morata started in strike for Diego Costa.

But Lopetegui stuck with Vitolo on the right side of his attack, and the Sevilla forward didn’t disappoint.

Macedonia’s respectable start was ruined when Darko Velkovski’s headed clearance landed in his own net in the 34th.

Vitolo emerged as Spain’s leader in the second half, coming close to setting up Morata and David Silva before he nodded in Silva’s pass to double the lead in the 63rd.

Monreal added a volley the 84th for his first international goal before substitute Aritz Aduriz made it four goals a minute later after Vitolo let Silva’s pass run through to the striker.

Belotti put Italy ahead early after he headed in a corner kick by Alessio Romagnoli.

Ciro Immobile struck Italy’s second in less than a minute, and Candreva made it 3-0 before Belotti netted his second just before halftime.

Belotti has also scored eight times for Torino in Serie A this season.

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