PARIS, France, Oct 8 – Blaise Matuidi’s early goal saw off Bulgaria 1-0 on Saturday and kept France top of European World Cup qualifying Group A, while the Netherlands’ hopes are hanging by a thread despite a 3-1 win in Belarus.
France took the lead in only the third minute as midfielder Matuidi curled home a fantastic shot from a tight angle into the far top corner.
Bulgaria more than held their own in Sofia, though, as they looked to repeat the famous win over France that sent them to the 1994 World Cup, and Hugo Lloris was forced into a point-blank save to deny Georgi Kostadinov.
But Didier Deschamps’s side closed out the vital win, and three points at home to Belarus on Tuesday would book their ticket to Russia.
“It was a difficult match with lots of mistakes, commitment,” said coach Deschamps.
“We’re still first — that’s important — we’ve got one match left and (qualification) remains in our hands, so we have to win on Tuesday.”
The Dutch needed a victory in Barysaw to keep alive any hopes of a top-two finish, but despite a third goal in two games from Brighton and Hove Albion midfielder Davy Propper, Belarus equalised through Maksim Volodjko.
Captain Arjen Robben came to his side’s rescue by netting a penalty with only six minutes remaining, before Memphis Depay added some gloss in injury-time.
The Netherlands are looking to avoid failing to qualify for successive major tournaments for the first time since 1986, having also missed out on Euro 2016.
But they now face a near impossible task, as Sweden thrashed Luxembourg 8-0 earlier on Saturday, with forward Marcus Berg scoring four goals, to extend their advantage over Dick Advocaat’s men on goal difference to 12.
Trailing the Scandinavians by three points, only a massive victory over Sweden in Amsterdam next week will save the three-time World Cup runners-up.
– Ronaldo spares Portugal’s blushes –
Portugal struggled for long periods in Andorra, needing the rested Cristiano Ronaldo to come on as a half-time substitute and help them stumble to a 2-0 win and set up a winner-takes-all showdown with Switzerland in Lisbon on Tuesday.
The European champions had to wait until the 63rd minute for Ronaldo to break the deadlock on the artificial pitch, before Andre Silva finally put their nerves to bed.
Real Madrid star Ronaldo, who started on the bench to help avoid collecting a yellow card that would have seen him suspended for Tuesday’s game, is now level on 15 goals for the campaign with Poland’s Robert Lewandowski, a record for European World Cup qualifying.
“Thank God that he scored,” said Portugal coach Fernando Santos.
“Cristiano Ronaldo was decisive for us in this match, but that’s why he’s the best player in the world.
“On that type of pitch, we were not able to really play our game, but we took advantage of the best player in the world.”
Steven Zuber scored twice in Basel as Switzerland made it nine wins from nine by thrashing Hungary 5-2.
Switzerland lead Portugal by three points but have an inferior goal difference.
In Group H, Greece moved into second place with a come-from-behind 2-1 victory in Cyprus after Bosnia and Herzegovina had suffered a stunning 4-3 home defeat by already-qualified Belgium.
FC Copenhagen striker Pieros Sotiriou put Cyprus ahead early on as they looked for a win to maintain hopes of a play-off place, but two goals in three first-half minutes from Kostas Mitroglou and Alexandros Tziolis sent Greece two points clear of Bosnia.
Michael Skibbe’s side are almost certain to finish second as they host pointless Gibraltar in their last game on Tuesday, although they could still miss out on the play-offs as the worst second-placed team.
Goals from Haris Medunjanin and Edin Visca put the Bosnians ahead in Sarajevo after Belgium full-back Thomas Muenier’s early strike, but Michy Batshuayi and Jan Vertonghen turned things around.
Dario Dumic’s 82nd-minute equaliser gave Bosnia hope, but Atletico Madrid winger Yannick Carrasco struck to break the hosts’ hearts.