Belgium shine on 1st day of European World Cup qualifiers

Sports Desk, Mar 24 (EFE).- France began their defense of the World Cup on Wednesday with a disappointing 1-1 home draw against Ukraine, while Belgium delivered an authoritative 3-1 victory over Wales.

Croatia, the 2018 runners-up, were shocked 1-0 by Slovenia, and reigning European champions Portugal eked out a 1-0 result against Azerbaijan.

The Netherlands saw their bid to reach the 2022 World Cup after failing to qualify for the tournament three years ago get off to a bad start with a 4-2 loss to Turkey.

By picking a squad that included the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba, French coach Didier Deschamps left no doubt that Les Bleus are committed to the quest to hoist the World Cup trophy again in Qatar.

The hosts dominated in the first half at the Stade de France, led by Barcelona’s Griezmann, who made it 1-0 with a spectacular strike in the 19th minute. Olivier Giroud headed just over the cross-bar on a chance to extend the lead in the 32nd.

But the French performance dropped off considerably after the break and the Ukrainians pulled even in the 57th minute courtesy of a blunder by France defender Presnel Kimpembe, who redirected a shot from Sergiy Sydorchuk into his own net.

Ukraine goalkeeper Heorhiy Bushchan dealt with a Griezmann effort in the 82nd minute and Kimpembe squandered a good opportunity in the dying seconds.

With the outcome in Paris and the 2-2 draw between Finland and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the four sides are level in Group D on a point apiece. The fifth team, Kazakhstan, have yet to play their first match.

Belgium, currently No. 1 in the FIFA global rankings, last lost a competitive match at home in 2010, so Wales had their work cut out for them Wednesday in Leuven.

But the Welsh, who upset Roberto Martinez’s men in the 2016 Euro quarterfinals, took the lead in the 10th minute on a fine goal by Harry Wilson, with a key assist from Gareth Bale.

Kevin de Bruyne equalized for the home side in the 22nd minute and helped set up Thorgan Hazard’s header five minutes later to put Belgium up 2-1.

The contest was still within reach for the Welsh until the 72nd minute, when Chris Mepham brought down Dries Mertens in the box and the referee pointed to the spot. Romelu Lukaku converted for the 3-1.

Despite the victory, Belgium sit second in Group E behind the Czech Republic, who pounded Estonia 2-6.

An uninspired Portugal squad prevailed 1-0 over Azerbaijan in Turin thanks to an own goal by defender Maksim Medvedev.

Cristiano Ronaldo had a quiet night and Manchester United talisman Bruno Fernandes failed to generate much of a spark when he came in as a sub.

The Portuguese are second in Group A. Serbia lead on goals scored after nipping Ireland 3-2 with a brace by Aleksandar Mitrovic.

Croatia, meanwhile, are fifth in Group H after losing 1-0 to Slovenia, who went ahead in the 15th minute with a goal by Sandi Lovric and hung on to claim all 3 points and a share of the lead with Russia, 1-3 winners over Malta.

In Istanbul, team captain Burak Yilmaz had a triple as Turkey upended the Netherlands 4-2 on the fifth anniversary of the death of Dutch soccer legend Johan Cruyff.

The Turks are level on points in Group G with Norway and Montenegro. EFE jv/dr

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