Ronaldo sets up Swiss showdown; France on brink of World Cup

LONDON: Cristiano Ronaldo scored and helped Portugal win an eighth straight game in World Cup qualifying on Saturday and still could fail to qualify.

While Portugal were labouring to beat Andorra 2-0, using their superstar as a substitute, Group ‘B’ leaders Switzerland’s 5-2 win over visiting Hungary ran their own win streak to nine. And the Swiss still could fail to advance.

It set up a showdown game in Lisbon on Tuesday that Portugal must win while the Swiss need only a draw to top the group and avoid the playoffs next month.

“If you win nine out of nine and you can still have fear of not qualifying, it’s anyway a bit complicated,” Switzerland captain Stephan Lichtsteiner said.

France’s third-minute goal in Bulgaria was enough for a 1-0 win to retain the Group ‘A’ lead by one point from Sweden, who earlier routed Luxembourg 8-0.

The third-placed Netherlands need a miracle in their final game at home to Sweden on Tuesday, despite winning 3-1 in Belarus.

Belgium already qualified from Group ‘H’ last month, and won 4-3 in Bosnia-Herzegovina to dent the home team’s chance of claiming a playoffs place as one of the eight best runners-up in the nine European groups.

Portugal’s tally of 24 points is enough to lead five of the nine European qualifying groups, but not the one they are in.

With an eye on facing Switzerland on Tuesday, Portugal rested Ronaldo and other players for the trip to 144th-ranked Andorra.

After a drab first half, 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.”

Switzerland took advantage of weak Hungary defending to lead by 3-0 at halftime, set on their way by goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi’s slip in the goalmouth to gift Granit Xhaka an 18th-minute opening goal in Basel.

Steven Zuber scored twice as the Swiss cruised to victory but might have concern at poor handling choices by goalkeeper Yann Sommer that let Hungary pull back two second-half goals.

France quickly got over the embarrassment of their 0-0 draw last month against Luxembourg, settling the game in Sofia in the third minute.

Blaise Matuidi curled home a fantastic shot from a tight angle into the far top corner and Bulgaria failed to reply on a rain-soaked night as 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 and captain Andreas Granqvist netting two penalty kicks, 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.

In Group ‘H’, Greece moved into second place with a come-from-behind 2-1 victory in Cyprus after Bosnia had suffered a stunning home defeat by 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.

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