ZURICH: France secured a vital win in Bulgaria to take a step closer to next year’s World Cup finals in Russia when Blaise Matuidi’s early goal secured a crucial 1-0 victory away to Bulgaria to regain the lead of European qualifying Group A.
The pressure was on after Sweden had earlier swept past Luxembourg 8-0 to boost their hopes of making it to Russia, which in turn all but eliminated Holland, who later won 3-1 in Belarus.
Juventus midfielder Matuidi lashed home an angled finish after just three minutes in Sofia, which leaves Les Bleus a point clear of Sweden and crucially with fate in their own hands ahead of the visit of Belarus on Tuesday.
Earlier on Saturday, Sweden thrashed Luxembourg in Solna, which temporarily put them ahead of France at the top of the group.
Al Ain striker Marcus Berg netted four goals and captain Andreas Granqvist scored a penalty in each half as the Swedes recorded their biggest victory since 1938. Luxembourg’s worst defeat in 35 years put them bottom of the group, now with a goal difference of minus 18.
Despite Holland’s victory at the Borisov Arena in Belarus, the Dutch look set to miss out on another major tournament given their inferior goal difference. Dick Advocaat’s side will host Sweden in Amsterdam with the visitors’ goal difference now some 12 better after their resounding victory over Luxembourg.
Brighton midfielder Davy Propper put the Oranje ahead against Belarus on 24 minutes, but defender Maksim Valadzko levelled 10 minutes into the second half.
With time running out, Holland took the lead again through a penalty from Arjen Robben on 84 minutes before Memphis Depay made it 3-1 with a free-kick in stoppage time.
Group H winners Belgium battled to a 4-3 away victory over Bosnia-Herzegovina, in a match which saw Manchester United midfielder Marouane Fellaini go off with what could prove a serious knee injury.
The midfielder was replaced after 29 minutes, with what coach Roberto Martinez afterwards suggested could be ligament damage.
Thomas Meunier had put Belgium in front after just four minutes, but goals from Haris Medunjanin on the half-hour and Edin Visca after 39 minutes put the hosts ahead going into the break.
Chelsea forward Michy Batshuayi levelled things up on the hour before Tottenham defender Jan Vertonghen gave Roberto Martinez’s side a 3-2 lead. Utrecht defender Dario Dumic equalised for Bosnia-Herzegovina with eight minutes left, but there was still time for Atletico Madrid winger Yannick Carrasco to slot in a winner.
In the other Group H afternoon kick-off, defender Joonas Tamm bagged a second-half hat-trick as Estonia trashed Gibraltar 6-0 at Estadio Algarve.
Elsewhere, Greece came from behind to beat Cyprus 2-1 in Nicosia to keep alive their own qualification hopes. Pieros Sotiriou put the hosts ahead in the 18th minute, but Marseille forward Konstantinos Mitroglou soon equalised before Alexandros Tziolis turned things around in the 24th minute.
Greece are in second place, two points clear of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Group B leaders Switzerland, meanwhile, moved a step closer to Russia after a 5-2 win over Hungary in Basel made it nine straight qualification wins.
With Portugal having won 2-0 away to Andorra, the Swiss now need only a point from their trip to Lisbon – but if the hosts can secure victory, they would claim top spot.
Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka opened the scoring on 18 minutes before Fabian Frei swiftly added a second to put the Swiss in control. Steven Zuber made it 3-0 just before half-time and added another four minutes after the restart.
Defender Richard Guzmics pulled a goal back for Hungary in the 59th minute, but Swiss captain Stephan Lichtsteiner knocked in a fifth with seven minutes left ahead of a late consolation from Roland Ugrai.
Cristiano Ronaldo, who was one match away from a suspension, had started on the bench, but Andorra’s resolve was finally broken when the Real Madrid star, on at the start of the second half, broke the deadlock on the hour with a close-range finish.
The Portugal forward then set up a late second for Andre Silva to give the Euro 2016 winners a shot at automatic qualification in next week’s showdown with Switzerland.