Portugal struggle to narrow World Cup qualifying win over Azerbaijan

Turin (Italy) (AFP) – European champions Portugal got their 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign off to a winning start thanks to an Azerbaijan own goal in a tight 1-0 Group A victory in Turin on Wednesday.

Azeri captain Maksim Medvedev turned the ball into his own net on 36 minutes, but that was all Portugal could muster against their 108th-ranked opponents.

“We had some difficulties, some problems, it’s undeniable,” said Portugal coach Fernando Santos, after his 50th win in charge from 80 matches.

“In the second half, the team lacked inspiration and fluidity.”

Cristiano Ronaldo failed to score at his club side’s Juventus Stadium — with the game on neutral ground due to coronavirus travel restrictions — remaining seven goals short of Iranian Ali Daei’s all-time international scoring record of 109 goals.

Portugal struggled due to poor finishing, a dogged Azeri defence and a series of fine saves from visiting goalkeeper Shakhrudin Magomedaliyev.

“We haven’t been playing together for quite a while,” Santos added. “It’s normal we need to warm up a bit more, but we’ve done what everyone expected us to do.

“We ended up winning, it’s true with an own goal, but maybe we would have deserved to win with a higher score.

“I’m quite satisfied with the performance, even if there is room for improvement. Our future is quite promising.

“We want to get back on track now against opponents who will be attacking more than tonight.”

– Profligate Portugal –

The Portuguese were camped in front of their rivals’ goal early, dominating the first half, with an Andre Silva header flying over the bar in the 12th minute.

The Azeri keeper kept out a Ronaldo header on 23 minutes, with Manchester City’s Joao Cancelo rifling just wide from a tight angle before the half-hour mark.

The breakthrough came from a goalmouth scramble, with Magomedaliyev punching the ball out, hitting Medvedev and bouncing into the back of his own net.

Ronaldo sent an overhead kick attempt before the break over and missed further chances to score his 103rd Portugal goal in the second half despite Azerbaijan being more dangerous after the break.

Joao Felix came off the bench for the final quarter of an hour but did not find a second goal.

Five-time Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldo set up Bruno Fernandes with 15 minutes to go, but the Manchester United midfielder’s shot was tipped over the bar by Magomedaliyev, who saved a Ronaldo free-kick at full stretch with five minutes to go.

“This is an acceptable result, many feared Portugal could score many goals against us,” said Azerbaijan’s Italian coach Giovanni De Biasi.

“We were too shy in the first half, in the second half we changed something and things improved, even considering the technical differences between the two teams.”

Portugal, who reached the World Cup semi-finals in 1966 and 2006, next travel to Serbia on Saturday and Luxembourg three days later.

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