LONDON: 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.
Belgium overcame stern resistance from Greece, winning 2-1 away from home as Manchester United striker Lukaku’s winning goal put the other Red Devils out of reach at the top of Group ‘H’.
Lukaku headed in a Thomas Meunier cross in the 74th minute in Piraeus to give Belgium an unassailable eight-point lead over second-placed Bosnia and Herzegovina with just two matches remaining.
A tense match was goalless until the 70th minute, when Tottenham defender Jan Vertonghen blasted Belgium ahead with a fierce shot.
Greece responded three minutes later through Zeca only for Lukaku to grab the decisive goal — his 10th in seven qualifiers.
Belgium join Brazil, Iran, Japan, Mexico and hosts Russia in guaranteeing a place at next year’s finals.
“We must be proud about being the first from Europe to qualify and now look to work harder to become better,” said coach Roberto Martinez.
“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.”
In the battle for second and a spot in November’s play-offs, Bosnia — for whom Edin Dzeko netted twice in a 4-0 win over Gibraltar — are now a point ahead of Greece and four clear of Cyprus, beaten 1-0 in Estonia.
France wasted their chance to move a step closer to World Cup qualification after the home draw with Luxembourg left automatic qualification from Group ‘A’ wide open with two games to go.
Sweden moved one point behind France after easing to a 4-0 win away to Belarus, while a selection choice from Netherlands coach Dick Advocaat paid off as midfielder Davy Proepper scored his first two international goals in a 3-1 home win against Bulgaria.
Advocaat’s side are three points behind Sweden and still in with an outside chance of securing a playoff spot.
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.
An Oct 10 showdown in Lisbon will likely decide which team qualifies automatically. The two sides have already secured the top two spots.
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 —2-0 winners over Turkey on Saturday — to the top of the table.
On Saturday, Spain moved closer to securing a World Cup spot with a convincing 3-0 win over Italy after a remarkable performance by Real Madrid forward Francisco “Isco” Alarcon.
Isco’s measured free-kick opened the scoring 13 minutes in at a packed Santiago Bernabeu before he doubled Spain’s lead with a fierce strike on his weaker left foot just before half-time.
Alvaro Morata came off the bench to round off a perfect night for Spain as they moved three points ahead of Italy at the top of Group ‘G’ with just three games to go.
On Friday, Germany kept cruising toward the World Cup, England edged closer, and Poland’s unbeaten run was decisively ended.
Germany’s 2-1 win at the Czech Republic was the world champion’s seventh straight win in qualifying and maintained its five-point lead over Northern Ireland atop Group ‘C’ with three rounds left.
England labored to a 4-0 win in Malta with three late goals to stay two points ahead in Group ‘F’ from Slovakia while Poland, the world’s fifth-ranked team, lost 4-0 in Denmark and now lead Group ‘E’ by just three points from Montenegro and the Danes.