The opening games in the European qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup in Russia have ended with the European champions Portugal suffering a defeat, France drawing a blank, and the Faroe Islands grab a point.
Maybe it’s because they always beat my England, but I have a real dislike for the Portuguese national side. Discounting the teams who competed at Euro 2016 that didn’t stand a mouse in hell’s chance of winning the thing, Portugal were the most mundane of the lot, and yet they won – don’t let the title of European Champions fool you.
Drawn in a group containing Switzerland, Latvia, Faroe Islands, Hungary, and Andorra, you expect Portugal to qualify with one Ronaldo tied behind their back. And yet they have started their Group B qualifying campaign with a humbling away at Switzerland, another team who played euthanasia inducing football during their Euro 2016 games.
Portugal was without their enigmatic captain Cristiano Ronaldo, and their young midfield star Renato Sanches, and yet they still managed to control most of the possession, taking 27 pot shots at the Swiss goal.
Switzerland took the lead after the Portuguese keeper dropped a 25-yard free kick onto the head of Breel Embolo and the Schalke 04 striker nodded into the net from eight yards. They were two-nil up inside 30-minutes after Bayer Leverkusen’s front man, Admir Mehmedi put the ball away after a swift counter-attack.
Former Manchester United winger Nani struck the post with a header in the second half. Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka was sent off for the Swiss for two bookable offences, but Portugal couldn’t make the extra man count.
That defeat means Portugal are now bottom of Group B, a slot that the Faroe Islands will eventually occupy. And yet the self-governing archipelago, which doesn’t even have a McDonald’s restaurant has started superbly with a 0-0 draw at home to one of Euro 2016’s surprise packages Hungary. It’s only the third time in the Faroe Islands World Cup history that they have kept a clean sheet, and only the ninth time in history they have avoided defeat.
In the other opening Group B game, Latvia beat Andorra by a goal to nil.
A look across the markets at oddsshark.com shows that the bookmakers are unperturbed by Portugal’s dismal start making them the 4/5 favourites to win the group, with Switzerland 11/10 to book a berth in the two-legged playoff.
France Held to a Goalless Draw in Belarus
It’s not just the European champions who tripped into the World Cup qualifiers with a hangover; the French also left their first group game with vomit dripping down their shirts.
The French failed to find the net against Belarus despite, at one time or another during the match, having the likes of Paul Pogba, Dimitri Payet, Olivier Giroud, Anthony Martial, and Antoine Griezmann on the pitch. Giroud once again failed to find favour amongst the French fans hitting a post and the crossbar during the night to forget for Les Blues.
In other Group A news, Bulgaria beat lowly Luxembourg in a 4-3 thriller, and Sweden began a new dawn without Zlatan Ibrahimovic with a 1-1 draw at home to the Netherlands.
France is still odds on to qualify for Russia, with most bookies pegging them at 5/4. The Dutch, who missed out on the European Championships in the summer, are favourites to make the playoffs.
Belgium Stuff Cyprus
Belgium is the top ranked European team in the FIFA rankings, and they started their World Cup campaign with a 3-0 demolition of Cyprus. Only Brazil rank higher, but the young Belgian team showed they have much to learn after the embarrassment of defeat against Wales in France.
After melting under the dragon’s breath Marc Wilmots made way for Roberto Martinez and the former Swansea, Wigan and Everton boss will feel good to get his first win under his belt after he saw his side lose 2-0 to Spain in his first game in charge.
The Belgian frontman Romelu Lukaku played for Martinez at Everton. I would like to say something about Martinez getting the best out of him, but that’s not the case. Lukaku has gone five months without a Premier League goal stretching over 13 games. Fortunately, his barn door problems haven’t followed him into the international scene. Lukaku scored a brace with Yannick Carrasco netting the other.
In the other Group H games Bosnia and Herzegovina thrashed the Estonians by 5-0, and Greece did likewise with a 4-1 away win at the home of everyone’s whipping boys Gibraltar.
Belgium is 1/4 across the board to qualify for Russia. The Bosnian’s are the best bet for a play-off berth at 11/4.
World Cup Winning Odds (Odds Courtesy of Oddsshark.com)
Who do you think will win in Russia and why?