The first round of the European section of 2018 World Cup Qualification fixtures are now complete, as the 54 competing nations launched their respective campaigns to try to reach the finals in Russia.
Whilst there were several noteworthy results, two were particularly surprising and they involved the Euro 2016 finalists, France and Portugal.
Both countries toiled in their first competitive games since playing one another in the Stade de France on 10 July, when the Portuguese triumphed 1-0.
Portugal’s poor start
In order to do so, Fernando Santos’ side produced a wonderfully assured and confident performance, which they were unable to replicate as they opened their 2018 World Cup Qualification campaign with a 2-0 away defeat to Switzerland.
In the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, with the Real Madrid forward missing the game through injury, Portugal conceded two first half goals, as Breel Embolo and Ahmed Mehmedi scored for the Swiss, for whom Granit Xhaka was sent off in injury time.
That represents the fourth red card that the Arsenal holding midfielder has received since the start of last season, as despite performing well he continues to suffer from disciplinary issues.
Nevertheless regardless of Xhaka’s dismissal Switzerland comfortably consigned Fernando Santos to his first competitive defeat in 15 matches as manager of Portugal, who created plenty of chances but were unable to convert any of them.
Faltering French open campaign with a draw
The frustration associated with that issue was one also experienced by Portugal’s Euro 2016 final opponents France.
Specifically despite dominating their first 2018 World Cup Qualification campaign game against Belarus, Les Bleus did not play with the fluency and attacking verve that they consistently displayed throughout Euro 2016, as Aleksandr Khatskevich’s side performed valiantly to secure a creditable point.
Instrumental in earning that was the Belarussian goalkeeper, Andrey Gurbonov, who on numerous occasions denied Antoine Greizmann. The Atletico Madrid forward, along with Olivier Giroud, Anthony Martial, Paul Pogba and Raphael Varane, each went close to scoring for Didier Deschamps team, whose best efforts to win the game ended in vain.
Much changed French squad
Of the French team to start against Belarus, there were only five surviving members of the side which began, the Euro 2016 Final against Portugal with the quintet being Giroud, Greizmann, Laurent Koscielny, Pogba and Moussa Sissoko.
Furthermore relative to the squad that Deschamps’ selected for Euro 2016 that which he took to Belarus assumed a markedly contrasting look since it contained eight different players.
Whilst Yohan Cabaye, Kingsley Coman, Patrice Evra, Christophe Jallet, Hugo Lloris, Eliaquim Mangala, Bacary Sagna and Morgan Schneiderlin all featured for France at Euro 2016, they were not called upon by Deschamps for France’s trip to Borisov, whilst their replacements were Geoffrey Kondogbia, Kevin Gameiro, Layvin Kurzawa, Sebastien Corchia, Alphonse Areola, Raphael Varane, Djibril Sidibe and Ousmane Dembele, respectively.
Improvement to be sought by Euro 2016 finalists in upcoming qualifiers
Given the number of alterations Deschamps has made to his squad, the 2018 World Cup Qualifying campaign could potentially be a transitional one for France, who similar to Portugal will aspire to avenge their disappointing start by producing improved performances in their upcoming qualifiers against Bulgaria and the Netherlands, which are set to take place next month.
The first of those games takes place at the Stade de France on 7 October, whilst three days later Les Bleus will face Danny Blind’s Dutch side in Amsterdam. Similar to France, Oranje opened their qualification campaign with a draw, as their game with Sweden ended 1-1, whilst Bulgaria won a thrilling encounter against Luxembourg 4-3.
On that basis, France’s qualification group is set to be characterized by great competitiveness. So too is Portugal’s, since the Faroe Islands held Hungary to a goalless draw, whilst Latvia only narrowly defeated Andorra 1-0.
Therefore in order to reach the 2018 World Cup finals, both France and Portugal will require to recover from indifferent starts to their qualification campaigns and assert their authority and quality in extremely challenging group.