Paris (AFP) – 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.
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.
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, before Andre Silva finally put their nerves to bed.
Real Madrid star Ronaldo is now level on 15 goals for the campaign with Poland’s Robert Lewandowski, a record for European World Cup qualifying.
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.