BRUSSELS, Sept 4, (Agencies): Belgium delivered a performance of character and proved they were building “a winning team”, coach Roberto Martinez said after they became the first country to qualify from the European preliminaries for next year’s World Cup finals in Russia. A 2-1 away win against Greece on Sunday ensured top place in Group H for the Belgians and a second successive World Cup finals appearance after a quarter-final finish in Brazil in 2014.
Sunday’s result also extended their unbeaten run to 11 games, tying the country’s previous best. “We must be proud about being the first from Europe to qualify and now look to work harder to become better,” said Martinez after the Belgians advanced to an unassailable 22 points, eight ahead of second placed Bosnia with two rounds left to play.
“It was clear that we didn’t play well, we weren’t ourselves. But the game was only about winning, it was like a cup final. It was not about playing good football. We had to win, in whatever manner we could. The first half of the game was probably the worst football we’ve played in this campaign.”
Goals after half-time from Jan Vertonghen and Romelu Lukaku ensured the victory. “I was really proud with the way the players fought. There were a few that really stood up — (Thibaut) Courtois, (Kevin) de Bruyne, Vertonghen, (Marouane) Fellaini. It is a real team and I can only but be proud of them,” the coach added.
“The players were not pleased at half-time and from their reaction you can see we are creating a winning team. They showed character, inspired one another and wanted to win. In a few weeks no one will remember how we did it.”
Sunday’s win meant Belgium have won seven of their eight group games with a home draw against the Greeks in March the only blemish. Belgium’s 35-goal haul in eight matches is the most by any team in the 2018 European qualifiers. Manchester United striker Lukaku headed in a Thomas Meunier cross in the 74th minute in Piraeus for the decisive goal. Portuguese-born midfielder Zeca equalised for Greece only for Lukaku to grab the decisive goal — his 10th in seven qualifiers — a minute later.
With just two matches remaining, Belgium enjoy an unassailable eight-point lead over second-placed Bosnia and Herzegovina, for whom Edin Dzeko netted twice in a 4-0 win over Gibraltar. Belgium join Brazil, Iran, Japan, Mexico and hosts Russia in guaranteeing a place at next year’s finals. In the battle for second and a spot in November’s play-offs, Bosnia are now a point ahead of Greece and four clear of Cyprus, beaten 1-0 in Estonia. Three days after a 4-0 destruction of the Netherlands in which they showcased their frightening array of attacking talent, France proved themselves unable to break down minnows Luxembourg, the nation lying 136th in the world rankings.
Didier Deschamps’ side, with Kylian Mbappe starting after coming off the bench to score against the Dutch, had more than 70 percent possession and over 30 attempts on goal in Toulouse but failed to find a way through and the final whistle was greeted with a chorus of boos. Antoine Griezmann smacked a 30-yard free-kick off the bar five minutes before half-time while Paul Pogba saw a header rebound off the frame of the goal late on. It could have been worse for Les Bleus, though, as Luxembourg substitute Gerson Rodrigues outpaced Laurent Koscielny in the 79th minute before seeing his shot strike an upright.
It is the first time France have failed to win against Luxembourg since 1914 and the only consolation for the French is that they remain a point clear of Sweden at the top of Group A with two games remaining. “Thursday’s result was important but so was getting three points today, so we’ll need to fight to the end,” Deschamps told TF1.
“The last two games will be decisive. We are in a better situation than we were in June, although we are disappointed tonight.”
Sweden, who beat France 2-1 in June, are second after a resounding 4-0 win in Belarus with goals from Emil Forsberg, Christoffer Nyman, Marcus Berg and an Andreas Granqvist penalty.
Meanwhile, the Netherlands boosted their qualification hopes with a 3-1 win over Bulgaria in Amsterdam.
Davy Propper scored twice either side of an Arjen Robben effort as the Dutch climbed above Bulgaria into third, three points behind Sweden who visit Amsterdam next month. In Group B Switzerland are still on top after making it eight wins from eight with a 3-0 victory in Latvia with Haris Seferovic and Blerim Dzemaili scoring before Ricardo Rodriguez netted a penalty.
European champions Portugal are still three points behind the Swiss in second following a 1-0 victory against 10-man Hungary in Budapest as the AC Milan striker Andre Silva netted the only goal.
Portugal still harbour hopes of winning the group and qualifying automatically as Cristiano Ronaldo’s side host Switzerland in Lisbon next month.
Also Domagoj Vida’s goal gave Croatia a crucial 1-0 victory over Kosovo in a match that had been stopped on Saturday due to heavy rain in Zagreb.
The Group I encounter resumed in the 21st minute on Sunday with Vida scoring 16 minutes from the end. The win took Croatia back above Ukraine to the top of the table.