AMSTERDAM — France lived up to its billing as favorite in World Cup qualifying Group A by beating the Netherlands 1-0 Monday, thanks to a long-range strike by midfielder Paul Pogba and a late save by Hugo Lloris.
Sweden, meanwhile, continued to show it can play without retired superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic, going level on points at the top of the group by registering its second victory in qualifying for the 2018 tournament in Russia, beating Bulgaria 3-0.
European Championship runner-up France looked dangerous throughout the match at the Amsterdam Arena, with Pogba bossing the midfield and the searing pace of right back Djibril Sidibe and powerful runs of Moussa Sissoko and Kevin Gameiro proving a menace.
“Paul was decisive tonight,” France coach Didier Deschamps said. “Not just because of his goal, but also by winning the ball in midfield and distributing well.”
While Netherlands goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg looked like he could have kept out Pogba’s goal, his good saves kept the score down in the second half.
“Maarten knows that he would usually save that (Pogba shot) with one hand in training,” Netherlands coach Danny Blind said.
Both teams were coming off 4-1 victories on Friday, the Netherlands’ attack making up for the team’s continuing defensive frailties against Belarus while France easily overcame Bulgaria as Gameiro scored his first international goals in more than five years.
But the Dutch, already missing experienced stars Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben to injuries, suffered an early setback when Quincy Promes, who scored twice on Friday, limped off and was replaced by Memphis Depay just 16 minutes in.
Without Promes’ pace, the Dutch rarely looked likely to break down the experienced France defense and already looks to be struggling to reach the World Cup with just one team automatically qualifying from each group.
Blind said he was not ready to give up the chase for top spot in the group yet.
“We’ve only played three out of 10 qualifiers,” he said. “We are only three points behind France, so it is not over yet.”
NETHERLANDS 0, FRANCE 1
In Amsterdam, France underscored its pedigree with an early assault on the Dutch goal, but after weathering that storm the Netherlands exerted pressure of its own, looking a far more confident team since its 4-1 victory over Belarus.
But the Dutch defense’s curse of giving away the ball in dangerous positions struck again in the 31st when Jeffrey Bruma’s loose pass was intercepted by Laurent Koscielny who quickly fed Pogba. Netherlands captain Kevin Strootman gave the Manchester United star far too much time and space and Pogba unleashed a powerful drive from 30 meters that Stekelenburg could only defledt on its way into the back of the net.
Ten minutes later, the Netherlands looked to have a very strong case for a penalty that could have cancelled out Pogba’s strike. Tottenham Hotspur striker Vincent Janssen twisted and turned in the penalty area before firing a low shot that Arsenal defender Koscielny slid to block, sending the ball bouncing onto his arm. Dutch players appealed in vain as referee Damir Skomina refused to give a spot kick.
“He could have put it on the spot,” Blind said of the referee. “He should have put it on the spot.”
As the Netherlands pressed forward in search of an equalizer in the second half, it was France who carved out the best chances.
Gameiro should have doubled France’s lead in the 55th minute, skillfully controlling a long pass by Pogba, but seeing Stekelenburg block his shot.
Stekelenburg then denied Pogba his second of the night, saving well after Pogba powerfully headed a Dimitri Payet corner.
Hugo Lloris made a great reflex save in the 89th minute to deny Depay and the Netherlands a late equalizer and condemn the Netherlands to its first home defeat in a World Cup qualifier in 16 years.
“We deserved a draw,” Blind said.
SWEDEN 3,, BULGARIA 0
In Solna, Ola Toivonen and Oscar Hiljemark both scored late in the first half and Victor Lindelof made it 3-0 in the 58th as Bulgaria lurched to its second straight defeat.
The win means France and Sweden remain the only unbeaten sides in Group A.
In the night’s other group match, Belarus took the lead in the 80th and Luxembourg equalized five minutes later in a 1-1 draw.