France, Portugal through but remain a work in progress

France's Antoine Griezmann slotting past Belarusian Syarhey Chernik in the 27th minute as Les Bleus ran out 2-1 winners. They will be among the favourites in Russia.
France's Antoine Griezmann slotting past Belarusian Syarhey Chernik in the 27th minute as Les Bleus ran out 2-1 winners. They will be among the favourites in Russia.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PARIS • Euro 2016 runners-up France and champions Portugal booked their berths in next year's World Cup Finals after victories in their final qualifiers on Tuesday.

Yet, both sides have much to improve on after stuttering campaigns nearly derailed their hopes for automatic qualification as respective group winners.

France coach Didier Deschamps said that he was excited by the challenge of moulding his young team into a true force, after they were made to work hard by a lively Belarus before clinching a 2-1 Group A win at the Stade de France.

After a bright start underlined by goals from Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud, Les Bleus appeared to tire in the second half as the exertions of two matches in four days showed following a 1-0 win against Bulgaria in Sofia on Saturday.

"There was a bit of tiredness and fragility because a lot was at stake," Deschamps said. "This is a young team who have many qualities but they are young all the same, and we were facing an opponent which never gave up and played with intensity and speed."

He said he fully recognised that France had made life difficult for themselves during their qualifying campaign, with baffling results like a goalless home draw against Luxembourg.

"We didn't control the matches," he admitted. "I'm not deaf and blind, I can see that."

However, with 18-year-old striker Kylian Mbappe the pick of the crop of an exciting young squad, Deschamps has a lot of material to work with.

"We can make progress in every area," the Frenchman said. "We conceded six goals in 10 matches and we wasted chances we could have scored from. At the highest level, you have to take those chances when it counts."

In Lisbon, Portugal defeated Switzerland 2-0 to book their place at next year's World Cup and consigned their opponents to next month's play-offs.

An own goal from Johan Djourou handed Portugal the lead on 41 minutes and Andre Silva netted a second before the hour as they finished top of Group B ahead of Switzerland on goal difference.

Cristiano Ronaldo's side had lost their qualifying campaign opener 2-0 to the Swiss, and had to win all nine remaining games to pip their rivals to top spot in the table.

"We've never pretended to be the best in the world, but we're capable of going head-to-head against any opponent," said Portugal coach Fernando Santos.

"To lose the first qualifying match, just after our win at Euro 2016, hurt us. From that point, I always thought we had to win all our remaining games because I was convinced the Swiss wouldn't drop any points before coming to Lisbon."

Switzerland will be among the seeded countries for the play-off draw on Oct 17 and could face Sweden, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland or Greece for a place at Russia 2018.

"We have to stay positive," said coach Vladimir Petkovic. "In November, we will take two steps forwards. I haven't had time to analyse our potential opponents, but I know they all have competitive teams."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2017, with the headline 'France, Portugal through but remain a work in progress'. Print Edition | Subscribe