Romelu Lukaku in action with Kostas Manolas (L) and Zeca (Reuters Photo)
Paris, September 4 (AFP): Romelu Lukaku’s goal allowed Belgium to become the first European nation to clinch qualification for the 2018 World Cup on Sunday as much-fancied France were held to an embarrassing goalless draw by Luxembourg.
Manchester United striker Lukaku headed in a Thomas Meunier cross in the 74th minute in Piraeus for the decisive goal in a 2-1 Belgium win that guaranteed them top spot in European qualifying Group H.
All the goals came in a frantic five-minute spell, with a low drive by Jan Vertonghen putting Roberto Martinez’s side ahead in the 70th minute.
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.
– Portugal chase Swiss –
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 on Sunday, 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.