Portugal lock down World Cup berth, France pass test
Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal defeated Switzerland 2-0 in Lisbon on Tuesday to earn a place at the 2018 World Cup and consign their opponents to next month’s play-offs.
An own goal from Johan Djourou handed the European champions the lead on 41 minutes and Andre Silva netted a second before the hour as Portugal finished top of Group B ahead of Switzerland on goal difference.
Switzerland, who beat Portugal 2-0 at home last year, had won all nine previous qualifiers but must overcome a two-legged play-off in November to earn a fourth straight World Cup appearance.
“We’ve never pretended to be the best in the world, but we’re capable of going head to head against any opponents,” said Portugal coach Fernando Santos.
“To lose the first qualifying match, just after our win at Euro 2016, hurt us. But we were able to respond starting with the following match.
“From that point I always thought we had to win all our remaining games because I was convinced the Swiss wouldn’t drop any points before coming to Lisbon.”
Ronaldo, who was injured for the opening qualifying defeat in Basel, returned to the Portugal line-up after coming off the bench to notch the opening goal in a lacklustre 2-0 win in Andorra on Saturday.
Switzerland were attempting to join defending champions Germany — and Spain ahead of the 2010 finals — as the only nations to complete a European World Cup qualifying campaign with a perfect record.
But AC Milan striker Andre Silva forced Yann Sommer into a smart early save from his deflected shot, with the Swiss goalkeeper then forced to make a terrific stop to tip over Bernardo Silva’s venomous effort.
A clumsy challenge in the area on Switzerland forward Haris Seferovic by Benfica team-mate Eliseu went unpunished as the visitors made a rare foray deep into the Portuguese half.
Madonna in the crowd
US pop star Madonna was among the crowd at the Estadio da Luz which erupted when Djourou inadvertently bundled a dangerous cross from Eliseu beyond Sommer four minutes before the break under heavy pressure from Joao Mario.
Xherdan Shaqiri tried to deceive Portugal keeper Rui Patricio with an ambitious free-kick early in the second period, but Portugal doubled their advantage with a brilliant team goal on 57 minutes.
Manchester City midfielder Bernardo Silva exchanged passes with former Monaco team-mate Joao Moutinho, threading through the return pass for an unmarked Andre Silva to steer in at the far post.
Switzerland go into the play-offs as the best of the eight runners-up to advance, with Slovakia missing out as the worst of the nine second-placed sides.
Vladimir Petkovic’s team will be among the seeded countries for the play-off draw on October 17 and could face Sweden, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland or Greece for a place at Russia 2018.
“We took a step backwards but we have to stay positive,” said Petkovic. “In November we will take two steps forwards.
“I haven’t had time to analyse our potential opponents, but I know they all have competitive teams.”
Tricky French challenge
France clinched qualification for the World Cup thanks to goals from Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud in a hard-fought 2-1 win over Belarus.
Didier Deschamps’s side successfully completed their tricky challenge of beating Bulgaria and Belarus in their final two qualifiers.
The victory at the Stade de France meant they avoided the tension of the playoffs that they had to endure to reach the last two finals.
But although they finished top of Group A, Deschamps’s team were less than convincing as already-eliminated Belarus repeatedly penetrated their rearguard.
“We are happy, even if qualifying is logical given the quality of the players I have,” said Deschamps, who also paid tribute to the French supporters.
“We now have an atmosphere that we haven’t had for a while and people are coming and getting fully behind the team,” he said.
Giroud said he was delighted to have avoided the playoffs.
“We chased this game and it wasn’t easy because they were strong and efficient in attack until the final whistle and we had to roll up our sleeves,” the Arsenal forward said.
“We’re all relieved tonight to have ended the campaign with automatic qualification.”
Deschamps started with Atletico Madrid striker Griezmann combining with Giroud’s aerial threat, and Griezmann eased nerves in the 27th minute as he produced a confident low finish from Blaise Matuidi’s smart pass.
Six minutes later, Griezmann intercepted a weak pass out of the Belarus defence and fed Giroud, who shrugged off two defenders to bundle in his 28th international goal.
But the French defensive pairing then went to sleep, allowing Belarus to reduce the gap when the lively Anton Saroka swept past Hugo Lloris a minute before half-time.
Saroka gave France another jolt when he shot just wide in the 64th minute, but he was narrowly offside.
Paris Saint-Germain starlet Kylian Mbappe was introduced in the second half to inject pace and fresh ideas, but with the seconds ticking down to the final whistle, it was Saroka again who slid a shot just wide from close range.
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