World Cup qualifiers: Ronaldo scoreless as Portugal top Azerbaijan, Belgium, Czech Republic win; France draw

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Cristiano Ronaldo was held scoreless as Portugal needed an own-goal to defeat Azerbaijan 1-0 in Group A of World Cup qualifying on Wednesday.

The 36th-minute winner came after Azerbaijan goalkeeper Shahruddin Mahammadaliyev tried to punch the ball out of the area and it ricocheted into the net off captain Maksim Medvedev.

Ronaldo’s fruitless evening left him seven goals away from becoming the all-time top scorer for a national team. The record of 109 goals is held by former Iran striker Ali Daei, the only other male soccer player to surpass the 100-goal milestone for a national team.

Ronaldo came close to scoring a couple of times from free kicks. He will get other chances to move closer to the record when Portugal visits Serbia on Saturday and Luxembourg on Tuesday.

The match was held in Turin, Italy, where Ronaldo plays with Juventus, because of the coronavirus situation in Portugal.

Azerbaijan won only one of its last nine World Cup qualifiers — against San Marino in 2017. It lost seven times in that streak.

In the other Group A match, Aleksandar Mitrovic came off the bench to score a pair of second-half goals as Serbia came from behind to defeat Ireland 3-2 in Belgrade.

Alan Browne scored Ireland’s first goal in the 18th and James Collins added the second in the 86th. Dusan Vlahovic put Serbia on the board in the 40th.

The result kept Ireland coach Stephen Kenny winless in his first nine matches in charge of a team trying to make it to the World Cup for the first time since 2002.

France draw 1-1 with Ukraine, Finland held 2-2 at home

France vs Ukraine France’s Antoine Griezmann, second left, celebrates after scoring opening goal during the World Cup 2022 group D qualifying match between France and Ukraine at the Start de de France stadium, in Saint Denis, north of Paris, Wednesday, March 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

Defending champion France opened its qualifying campaign for the 2022 World Cup with a tame 1-1 draw against Ukraine, while Bosnia-Herzegovina scored late to draw 2-2 away against Finland in Wednesday’s other Group D game.

Barcelona forward Antoine Griezmann showed his return to form with the opening goal in the 19th minute. But an own goal from central defender Presnel Kimpembe gifted Ukraine an equalizer in the 57th at an empty Stade de France.

Goalkeeper Heorhiy Bushchan did well to keep out a close-range effort from Olivier Giroud early on. But he was beaten when Griezmann curled in a shot from just inside the right of the penalty area into the left corner.

With his 34th international goal, Griezmann moved level with David Trezeguet in fourth place on France’s scoring list. Thierry Henry leads with 51.

Giroud has been struggling to get a game for Chelsea since Thomas Tuchel replaced Frank Lampard as coach. He looked a bit rusty and headed over near the break with a decent chance.

Ukraine equalized when Sergii Sydorchuk’s shot clipped Kimpembe as he went to close the midfielder down, and the ball wrongfooted goalie Hugo Lloris before rolling slowly over the line.

Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe, who reached 100 league goals last weekend, had a poor game for France and was replaced by Anthony Martial for the last 15 minutes.

PUKKI DOUBLE

In Helsinki, striker Teemu Pukki netted twice but Finland couldn’t hold on for the win.

Barcelona midfielder Miralem Pjanic had put the visitors ahead in the 55th. But Pukki, who has netted 22 goals for promotion-chasing Norwich in England’s second tier, equalized three minutes later and put the Finns ahead in the 77th.

But neither team could control the game and winger Miroslav Stevanovic made it 2-2 with six minutes left.

France travels to Kazakhstan and Ukraine hosts Finland in Sunday’s games.

Belgium win opener, Czech Republic thrash Estonia

Belgium vs Wales Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne, left, vies for the ball with Wales’ Neco Williams during a World Cup 2022 group E qualifying match between Belgium and Wales at the King Power stadium in Leuven, Belgium, Wednesday, March 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

Top-ranked Belgium produced a subdued but controlled display to start its qualifying campaign for the 2022 World Cup with a 3-1 win over Wales on Wednesday, while Czech Republic hammered Estonia 6-2 in the group’s other game.

After conceding an early goal, the Belgians quickly recovered with goals from Kevin De Bruyne, Thorgan Hazard and Romelu Lukaku to put an end to their four-game winless run against Wales and avenge a 3-1 loss at the 2016 European championship in their previous meeting.

“We were very confident and we managed to turn the situation around,” Belgium midfielder Thomas Meunier said.

In Lublin, Estonia scored an early goal but could not hold on to its lead as Tomas Soucek netted a hat trick for the Czechs.

The Belgians, who top the FIFA world rankings, travel to the Czech Republic on Saturday in Group E.

Having lost midfielder Joe Allen just seven minutes into the match because of muscle injury, Wales looked set for a difficult evening at Den Dreef stadium in the city of Leuven.

But it was instead the hosts who were caught cold after a succession of quick passes that opened the Belgium defense on the break. The move was concluded by Harry Wilson, who beat Thibaut Courtois with a low shot from Gareth Bale’s first-touch assist.

Belgium was left unimpressed and got a quick equalizer. Lurking near the box unmarked, De Bruyne was set up by Hazard, found some space and unleashed a precise shot from the edge of the area into the net in the 22nd minute.

Wales was made to pay for its sloppy defending six minutes later as Hazard connected with a cross from Meunier at the far post and headed home after his marker fell down on the turf.

Belgium then took control of the midfield as Wales struggled to string passes together.

The visitors imposed a strong press at the start of the second half and pushed higher up the pitch, but struggled to create chances despite enjoying more possession. Belgium doubled its lead after Chris Mepham fouled Dries Mertens in the box as Lukaku — Belgium’s all-time top scorer — cooly converted from the spot to score his 58th goal in 90 matches with the national team.



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