Despite dominating possession, out-shooting their opponents by 29-4 and having Cristiano Ronaldo in their arsenal on his club’s home turf, only an own goal separated Portugal and Azerbaijan as the Iberian side joined Serbia on three points at the top of Group A.
The unexpected star of the night at the Juventus Stadium was Azerbaijan goalkeeper Shakhrudin Magomedaliyev, who, along with a strong back line, absorbed the waves of pressure from the reigning European champions and kept the minnows in the tie until the very end.
But the defensive prowess could not inspire an equaliser from the underdogs, and the only stain on Magomedaliyev’s almost perfect game came from an unfortunate own goal.
Ruben Neves’ cross was met by both the ‘keeper and skipper Maksim Medvedev, whose miscommunication ended in the ball deflecting in off Medvedev after the ball was punched against him.
Also suffering from own-goal woe were World Cup holders France, who were left frustrated in Paris by Ukraine after their early lead – handed to them by Antoine Griezmann’s 19th-minute stunner – was undone by a Presnel Kimpembe own goal.
The current favourites for next year’s tournament didn’t have the killer instinct against a team that registered no shots on target all match, and they were joined by 2018 finalists Croatia in suffering a surprising setback as they couldn’t overturn a 15th-minute goal by Sandi Lovric in a 1-0 loss to Slovenia.
Killer instinct was not lacking from a star-studded Belgium, however, as Kevin De Bruyne’s brilliance proved the difference in a 3-1 win over Wales in Leuven.
The Welsh grabbed an early lead via Harry Wilson’s superbly-crafted 10th-minute goal, but the hosts were soon ahead as De Bruyne fired home from distance and then played a major part as Thorgan Hazard’s header gave them the lead. Romelu Lukaku sealed victory with a 73rd-minute penalty after Chris Mepham brought down Dries Mertens.
In the evening’s early game the Netherlands lost their opener to fellow Group G heavyweights Turkey as veteran captain Burak Yilmaz netted a hat-trick for the home side. Frank de Boer’s men, seeking redemption after failing to qualify for the 2018 tournament, looked to have no chance of a result when Hakan Calhanoglu made it 3-0 to Turkey a few seconds into the second half, but two goals in as many minutes gave the Dutch hope of a late comeback.
But their momentum was ended by a stunning free-kick from Yilmaz which completed his hat-trick as Turkey aim to reach their first finals since 2002.