Euro 2016 finalists Portugal, France open World Cup tamely
September 7, 2016 09:42 AM NPT
Photo : AP
GENEVA, Sept 7: European Championship finalists Portugal and France came down from their summer highs with tame starts to World Cup qualifying on Tuesday.
Without Cristiano Ronaldo again, still recovering from his Euro 2016 final injury, newly crowned Portugal slumped to a 2-0 loss away to Switzerland.
France failed to score in 120 minutes against Portugal in Paris, and two months later got only a 0-0 draw at unheralded Belarus.
Also in France's group, the post-Zlatan Ibrahimovic era began for Sweden with a 1-1 draw at home to the Netherlands.
Heavily favored to win Group H, No. 2-ranked Belgium began with a routine 3-0 win at Cyprus as it seeks to repair a recent reputation as tournament underachievers.
After Iceland's popular run to the Euro 2016 quarterfinals, the search for the next Cinderella story could lead to Luxembourg.
The tiny principality team lost 4-3 at Bulgaria after leading in the second half and levelling in stoppage time. Bulgaria, the 1994 World Cup semifinalist, scored the decisive goal in the second minute of time added on.
While European Championship runner-up France was held to a frustrating 0-0 draw at Belarus, the Netherlands and Sweden did find the target as they began their rebuilding process with a 1-1 draw.
As little-known Belarus goalkeeper Andrei Gorbunov caught the eye with some fine second-half saves, the goals flew in elsewhere in a thrilling match that saw Bulgaria squeeze past Luxembourg 4-3.
Gorbunov denied Euro 2016 top scorer Antoine Griezmann three times and made another key save from left back Layvin Kurzawa. France forward Olivier Giroud dragged a shot wide when sent through by Griezmann's backheel and also headed against the crossbar.
Sweden's 62-goal record scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic is no longer around, having retired after a dismal Euro 2016 campaign.
Still, Marcus Berg scored a Zlatan-esque goal with a chip from just inside the penalty area shortly before halftime. Veteran Dutch midfielder Wesley Sneijder leveled midway through the second half for a once-proud team side that is low on confidence after failing to qualify for Euro 2016.
Bulgaria led 1-0 early on, trailed 2-1 just after the hour mark and led 3-2 before a dramatic finale saw defender Florian Bohnert level for Luxembourg in the first minute of injury time.
Cruelly for the visitors, midfielder Aleksandar Tonev's goal a minute later sent Bulgaria top of the group ahead of its trip to Paris next month.
European champion Portugal had to leave Cristiano Ronaldo out of its squad to face Switzerland and was deservedly beaten 2-0 in Basel.
A Swiss team which mostly lacked spark in France fired into life with two goals in the first half hour.
Breel Embolo reacted fastest in the 23rd minute to head low past Rui Patricio's dive after the goalkeeper parried a Ricardo Rodriguez free kick. Admir Mehmedi finished a fast break in the 30th with a curling shot into the top-right corner of the Portugal goal.
Portugal struck a post in the 82nd from Nani's slow, bouncing header.
Switzerland will have Granit Xhaka suspended for the trip to Hungary next month after the midfielder was sent off in stoppage time. His second yellow card was for a reckless tackle through the back of Joao Mario's legs.
Hungary was lucky to get a 0-0 draw with the Faeroe Islands on a windswept evening in the north Atlantic, and Latvia won 1-0 at Andorra.
Watched by Thierry Henry, Belgium's new strikers' coach, Romelu Lukaku scored a goal in each half in a 3-0 win at Cyprus.
Lukaku headed home the opener in the 13th minute after Cyprus goalkeeper Konstantinos Panagi had parried a low shot from Thomas Meunier, and struck again in the 61st.
Yannick Carrasco rounded off the scoring for coach Roberto Martinez's team in the 81st, before substitute Michy Batshuayi had a penalty kick saved by Panagi.
Bosnia-Herzegovina routed Estonia 5-0 as it seeks to qualify for a second consecutive World Cup.
Veteran defender Emir Spahic scored with an early close-range header, and captain Edin Dzeko converted from the penalty spot after he was fouled by Estonia captain Ragnar Klavan.
Bosnia added late goals from Haris Medunjanin, Vedad Ibisevic and Spahic again.
Gibraltar scored on its World Cup debut though lost 4-1 to Greece, the 2004 European champion which has dropped in the rankings.
Playing the 'home' game in Faro, Portugal, while its own stadium is being built, Gibraltar leveled Greece's 10th-minute opener with a curling shot by Liam Walker in the 26th.
Greece then added three more goals between the 44th minute and the halftime whistle.