Ronaldo puts Portugal back on track LONDON: Cristiano Ronaldo needed only four minutes to put European champions Portugal back on track in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, while France’s recovery came thanks to a pair of goals by forward Kevin Gameiro.
Ronaldo, who missed Portugal’s opening loss to Switzerland because of a knee injury in the final of Euro 2016, returned to action on Friday by scoring two of his four goals less than five minutes into the 6-0 rout of nine-man Andorra in Group ‘B’.
Switzerland earned a late 3-2 win at Hungary to stay in the group lead, ahead of the surprising Faeroe Islands.
Euro 2016 runners-up France conceded early but got back in contention in Group ‘A’ with a 4-1 win over Bulgaria, with Gameiro scoring his first goals for the national team in more than five years.
The Netherlands and Sweden also claimed their first victories, and all three teams were atop the group after two rounds.
Belgium and Greece won their second in a row to take command of Group ‘H’. Only the group winners automatically qualify.
Real Madrid superstar Ronaldo was making his first appearance for Portugal since he was stretchered off injured and in tears from the final of Euro 2016 and he wasted no time in making up for his three-month absence from international football.
The 31-year-old took just 73 seconds to make his mark. He was wrestled to the floor at a corner but then jumped up to volley in left footed from around the penalty spot after the Andorra goalkeeper could only parry a Portugal header
Ronaldo, who has struggled to get back to his brilliant best for Real since returning from his knee trouble, was at it again two minutes later when he was left totally unmarked on the six-yard box to rise and head in.
It was only a matter of how many for the home side after that, as Portugal belatedly got three points on the board in Group ‘B’.
Ronaldo made it the perfect hat-trick just 90 seconds after the break, grabbing his third — Portugal’s fourth — with a sweet right-footed volley.
Andorra’s nightmare evening got that bit worse just after the hour when they went down to 10 men, Jordi Rubio receiving a second yellow card for clattering late and hard into Ronaldo, who punished the away side soon after with another fine half-volley for 5-0.
Cynical and increasingly desperate Andorra saw red again when Marc Rebes was the next to get sent off, again for cutting down the man of the moment Ronaldo.
Andre Silva sealed the punishment four minutes from time.
“We know that Switzerland and the Faroes won tonight and it will be necessary for us to beat them during qualification,” said Ronaldo who now has 65 international goals.
“There are eight games left and we want to win them all to reach the World Cup finals.”
The victory left Portugal three points behind Switzerland, who twice relinquished leads but held on after Valentin Stocker’s 89th-minute goal in Budapest, earning their second win in a row and securing the group lead.
The Swiss have six points, two more than the surprising Faeroe Islands, who followed their opening draw at Hungary with a 2-0 victory over Latvia behind goals by Sonni Nattestad and Joan Edmundsson.
GAMEIRO AT THE DOUBLE
France, Sweden and the Netherlands earned their first victories and are level on points after two games in Group ‘A’.
France, agonisingly beaten by Portugal in Paris in the Euro final in July, returned to the scene of that heartbreak and got off to the worst possible start when they conceded after just six minutes at the Stade de France.
Mihail Aleksandrov stroked home from the penalty spot to give the Bulgarians a shock lead.
But the French stormed back with two goals from Gameiro — making his first international start in almost five years — one by Dimitri Payet, and another by Antoine Griezmann.
“It was a perfect evening. We reacted well and then ran away with it,” Gameiro, back in favour at the age of 29, told TF1.
“I felt enormously proud and especially full of desire. Hard work pays off.”
The Netherlands, who failed to make it to the Euros, top the group after they defeated Belarus 4-1 as Quincy Promes scored his first two international goals and Vincent Janssen and Davy Klaassen netted one each in Rotterdam.
France travel to Amsterdam on Monday for a mouthwatering clash with the Netherlands.
Sweden remained unbeaten after defender Mikael Lustig scored the winner at Luxembourg with a half-volley from Marcus Berg’s corner in the second half.
Bulgaria have three points, one behind the group leaders, while Belarus have one point and Luxembourg zero.
Belgium and Greece won again to take control of Group ‘H’, with the Belgians routing Bosnia 4-0 at home and Greece topping Cyprus 2-0.
The Belgians got two goals in each half to get past a Bosnian team that started their campaign with a 5-0 win over Estonia.
“We played with intensity that denied the Bosnians possession even when they tried to change up their game,” Belgium coach Roberto Martinez said.
Greece defeated a hard-working Cyprus to continue their recovery under new coach Michael Skibbe.
Kostas Mitroglou needed one touch to find the net early, and Petros Mantalos added the second goal just before the break.
“We expected this to be a tricky match and it was,” Skibbe said. “We scored good goals but at times lacked composure. That’s something we need to work on. But we’re improving with every game and with every win.”
Bosnia and Estonia, which beat Gibraltar 4-0 at home with two goals by Mattias Kait, have three points each.