IN PICS: World Cup 2018 Qualifying round-up

With Cristiano Ronaldo still missing due to injury, European champions Portugal began their bid to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia with a disappointing 2-0 defeat in Switzerland on Tuesday.

Goals seven minutes apart in the first half from teenage sensation Breel Embolo and Admir Mehmedi gave the Swiss the points at the St Jakob-Park in Basel as they got off to the ideal start in qualifying Group B.

Ronaldo was one of three Portuguese players to have started the 1-0 extra-time triumph against France on July 10 who was absent from the away starting line-up in Basel, with Renato Sanches also sidelined and Joao Mario only on the bench.

Joao Moutinho and Bernardo Silva came in along with Lille striker Eder, the man who came off the bench to score the winning goal at the Stade de France.

But Fernando Santos’ side were undone as Switzerland went in front midway through the first half, Schalke striker Embolo heading home the loose ball after Rui Patricio had only managed to parry a Ricardo Rodriguez free-kick.

The Swiss doubled their lead on the half-hour mark when Haris Seferovic cut the ball back for Mehmedi, who took a touch and finished high into the net.

With FIFA president Gianni Infantino watching on, any hopes Portugal had of turning the game around were effectively ended when the unmarked Nani headed against the post from six yards following a Ricardo Quaresma cross.

FRANCE HELD BY BELARUS

Elsewhere on Tuesday, Euro 2016 runners-up France also showed signs of a hangover from their summer exertions as Les Bleus were held to a 0-0 draw in Belarus in Group A.

France have had problems against Belarus in the recent past, including taking just one point against the former Soviet Republic in Euro 2012 qualifying.

Paul Pogba, the world’s most expensive player, started for the visitors in Borisov, but coach Didier Deschamps made six changes compared to the side that lost the European Championship final, leaving Dimitri Payet on the bench.

With Les Bleus lacking attacking inspiration, though, Payet came on for Anthony Martial just before the hour mark and moments later his corner was headed against the bar by Olivier Giroud.

Antoine Griezmann then met a low ball in to the near post by Moussa Sissoko but was thwarted by Andrei Gorbunov.

The Belarus goalkeeper came up with another decisive intervention in the 73rd minute, saving a Layvin Kurzawa header from a Payet free-kick, with Manchester United’s Pogba just unable to get to the follow-up.

SNEIJDER SAVES THE DUTCH

In the same group, the Netherlands began their attempt to bounce back from their failure to qualify for Euro 2016 by facing the Swedes at the Friends Arena.

It is the beginning of a new era for Sweden, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic now retired from international football and Janne Andersson having replaced Erik Hamren as coach.

They went in front two minutes before half-time when Kevin Strootman was caught in possession just outside the Dutch box and Marcus Berg, who used to play in Holland for Groningen and PSV Eindhoven, beat Jeroen Zoet with a superb chip from 20 yards.

However, Wesley Sneijder followed in to convert the rebound and make it 1-1 midway through the second half after Robin Olsen had saved from Daryl Janmaat.

MARTINEZ REGISTERS BELGIUM WIN

In Nicosia, former Everton boss Roberto Martinez’s first competitive match as coach of Belgium ended in a 3-0 win against Cyprus.

Belgium got off to a fine start in the group with Romelu Lukaku scoring a brace and Yannick Carrasco also on target.

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#360view: England give little reason to be cheerful

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Lallana saved England's blushes.

Comedians at the training ground; the ever-widening grin of Sam Allardyce; and choruses of “Big Sam’s Barmy Army” – this was supposed to a more fun and relaxed England.

An attempt to eradicate the misery of Euro 2016 and remove some of the fear factor which continues to envelop English footballers whenever they don the Three Lions. It’s to Allardyce’s eternal chagrin that he can never truly remove his character from his role as managerial tactician. But that has to be part of the reason why he was appointed in the first place.

For since the departure of Kevin Keegan, each England manager appointed has been a reactionary move against the fallen boss; the slick and continental Sven Goran Eriksson followed the tactically and overtly ‘English’ mindset of Keegan; Steve McClaren was supposed to be a return to a more hands-on, training ground coach after the laissez faire approach of the Swede; Fabio Capello was installed to restore a discipline lost under the Englishman, while Roy Hodgson represented a more approachable and affable figure.

Allardyce is the man putting the pride, passion and pleasure back into a team which has lost its way. Except, for much of the 95 minutes it took England to score the winning goal against Slovakia, it all seemed very familiar.

Wayne Rooney sending floated 40-yard passes to his full-backs, giving defenders amble time to regroup; Harry Kane’s first touch resembling a tightly-gauged trampoline as opposed to a cushion, and a ponderous midfield which showed little ingenuity or guile in breaking down a Slovak defence they had exactly the same problem against 76 days earlier.

The Premier League’s unofficial moniker has flipped between “best in the world” and “most exciting in the world” for years but the national team it’s supposed to foster resembles the exact opposite of both boastful claims.

Pointing fingers at Allardyce after only a few days working with his squad for a reasonably tricky away encounter to negotiate is a touch unfair – and a win is, indeed, a win – but the eerie reality is that this was no better than England’s dismal displays in France.

It only emphasises the job Allardyce has on his hands in turning a deeply average football team into something befitting of their grand surroundings at home and the expectations that creates.

It appears Rooney is guaranteed another 10-15 caps before Russia 2018 with Allardyce claiming post-match his No10, “can play wherever he wants”. Too often Rooney was the deepest of England’s three midfielders, attempting to spray passes from deep a la Andrea Pirlo.

It evoked memories of David Beckham against Northern Ireland in 2005 where a manager’s favourite was indulged against the betterment of the team. It’s that sort of flattery which has held England back for too long. Some don’t seem to have to earn their place anymore.

Allardyce’s former assistant at Bolton, Phil Brown, insists he’s a round-pegs-in-round-holes kind of manager. But are we really going to have to go two years of a qualification campaign to establish Rooney is now barely an international-class No10, let alone a deep-lying midfield playmaker? The shoe-horning should have stopped with the Lampard-Gerrard debate.

Kane’s reputation is sliding as fast as his performance levels and the Tottenham frontman simply shouldn’t have started in Trnava. His form since May has been woeful, he looks shot of confidence and energy and there’s been 263 minutes of Premier League evidence to illustrate this. Yet, still he played.

We’re 26 caps into Jordan Henderson’s international career but, as yet, there are few signs he can operate at this level with any great consistency, an attribute crucial to a central midfielder expected to anchor the team. It goes on.

True, the England manager can only work with the tools he’s got and there are a troubling lack of options available to him. On the one hand, selecting eight of the 11 who were humiliated against Iceland shows faith and an attempt to rebuild brittle belief.

But, on the other, maybe displays a lack of fresh ideas only seeking to enhance the overall feeling that this will end up merely being more of the same from England.

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IN PICS: World Cup 2018 Qualifying round-up

Adam Lallana ensured Sam Allardyce’s reign as England manager got off to a dramatic winning start with a strike deep into injury time against Slovakia.

Allardyce had looked as though he would have to settle for a deeply uninspiring stalemate in Trnava – the hosts having held firm in the World Cup Group F qualifier despite Martin Skrtel’s sending-off after a nasty stamp on Harry Kane.

However Lallana picked a perfect moment to break his international duck and seal a 1-0 success. The Liverpool forward had already clattered a post when the ball broke for him inside the area, with seconds of the four added minutes left.

He showed neat footwork and got his shot away, then turned away in celebration as keeper Matus Kozacik let the ball squirm between his legs and over the line.

SCOTLAND CRUISE ON SNODGRASS HAT-TRICK

Also in Group F alongside England, Scotland made a winning start as a hat-trick from Hull’s Robert Snodgrass helped secure a 5-1 victory in Malta.

Snodgrass’ over-hit cross flew into the far top corner to give Gordon Strachan’s side a ninth-minute lead but Alfred Effiong quickly headed an equaliser.

Chris Martin restored Scotland’s lead just after half-time before a harsh red card for home defender Jonathan Caruana. Snodgrass scored from the resulting penalty and a Steven Fletcher header extended the lead.

Snodgrass tapped in for his hat-trick after a Fletcher shot had struck the crossbar, and Malta finished with nine men after Luke Gambin was sent off for a hack at Snodgrass.

MULLER BAGS BRACE IN GERMAN WIN

In Group C, world champions Germany began with a 3-0 win in Norway as Joshua Kimmich scored in between two goals from Thomas Muller.

Muller struck in the 16th minute at the Ullevaal Stadion in Oslo before Kimmich netted Germany’s second goal on the stroke of half-time.

Muller then scored again on the hour to ensure a winning start for Joachim Loew’s team in Group C as the world champions set off on the road to the finals in Russia.

CZECH HELD BY NORTHERN IRELAND

Northern Ireland took a point from their opening World Cup qualifier as Filip Novak’s stunning miss let Michael O’Neill’s side take a 0-0 draw with the Czech Republic.

Two years on from a victory in Hungary which kickstarted their run to the Euro 2016 finals, the feel-good buzz accrued from featuring in France this summer evaporated somewhat with a stalemate against the equally underwhelming Czechs.

Boss O’Neill may be satisfied with a share of the spoils, a return they only got due to Novak’s mystifying second-half close-range blunder, but the manner of the performance suggested there is plenty to do if they are to reach Russia in 2018.

ERIKSEN STRIKE SEALS WIN FOR DENMARK

Denmark were the only team to make a winning start in Group E thanks to Christian Eriksen’s first-half strike against Armenia in Copenhagen, as Kazakhstan and Poland drew 2-2 and Romania and Montenegro shared the points in a 1-1 draw.

POLAND PEGGED BACK IN 2-2 DRAW

Bartosz Kapustka’s strike and a Robert Lewandowski penalty had Poland in control but a quick-fire double from Sergei Khizhnichenko early in the second half earned an impressive 2-2 draw for the hosts.

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