France qualify for World Cup; but Netherlands fail again
SAINT-DENIS: Antoine Griezmann scored one goal and made the other as France beat Belarus 2-1 to qualify for next year's World Cup, while a 2-0 home win for the Netherlands against Sweden was in vain as it failed to reach its second straight major tournament.
France won Group A with 23 points, four clear of the Netherlands and Sweden, which advances to the playoffs on goal difference. Bulgaria finished fourth ahead of Luxembourg and Belarus.
To add to the Dutch disappointment, star winger Arjen Robben announced his retirement from international football after the game.
France was relatively comfortable throughout qualifying, but is not playing as well as when it reached the Euro 2016 final.
"It wasn't an easy game tonight, but we've reached our objective," France coach Didier Deschamps said. "We didn't do everything right, maybe there was a bit of tension as well."
This was a functional but uninspiring performance, punctuated by a brief spell of attacking intensity that produced two goals in quick succession.
After strike partner Olivier Giroud hit the crossbar with a close-range header, Griezmann scored in the 27th minute.
Latching onto midfielder Blaise Matuidi's short pass, the Atletico Madrid forward burst inside the left of the area and confidently clipped a low shot into the right corner.
Six minutes later, he turned provider for Giroud, who used this strength to compensate for a lack of pace, holding off a defender before slotting the ball into the bottom corner for his 28th international goal.
It meant a lot to Giroud, who has been out of the Arsenal side and was dropped for Saturday's 1-0 win away to Bulgaria, and he triumphantly raised both arms as he slid on his knees to celebrate.
Belarus was already eliminated and, commendably, played with attacking intent.
After a couple of narrow escapes, France's sloppy defending was rightly punished just before halftime when striker Anton Saroka was given too much space inside the area and guided a neat shot across goalie Hugo Lloris.
With France giving possession away carelessly, the lively Saroka poked a good chance wide in the last second as France's nerves frayed.
"There's a bit of fatigue and anxiety when there's something at stake," Deschamps said.
The Stade de France crowd is known for its impatience, but gave the players a warm send off, singing "We're going to Russia."
Standing in front of the fans, and with teammates united behind him, team captain Lloris led the clapping at both ends after the final whistle.
But France will need to up its performance at the World Cup.
"My team has a lot of quality, but it's a young side," Deschamps said. "I'm well aware that we have to control some situations far better."
The Netherlands could count on the aging Arjen Robben to deliver one last time — although it proved to be in vain.
Robben's two goals helped the Dutch beat Sweden 2-0, but it was not enough to secure a place in the playoffs, and was followed by the hugely talented winger announcing his retirement from the national team.
The Swedes could afford to lose by a six-goal margin, anyway, and advanced to the playoffs in second place with a superior goal difference.
For the hosts, it continued a fall from grace for a side that reached the 2010 World Cup final and the 2014 semifinals and then failed to reach last year's European Championship.
Robben turns 34 in January, but he is still as lethal as ever cutting in from the flank and unleashing his blistering shots, as he showed with his second goal after netting the first from the penalty spot.
"I wanted to show one more time all the things that I can do," said Robben, who took his international tally to 37 in 96 games.
Midfielder Oliver Thill's first international goal put Luxembourg ahead in the third minute in a 1-1 home draw with Bulgaria.
Central midfielder Ivaylo Chochev rescued a point midway through the second half.