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Portugal struggle to narrow qualifying win over Azerbaijan

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Portugal’s defender Joao Cancelo (L) vies with Azerbaijan’s defender Azer Salahli during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 qualification football match between Portugal and Azerbaijan on March 24, 2021 at the Juventus Stadium. (Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP)


European champions Portugal got their 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign off to a winning start thanks to an Azerbaijan own-goal in a tight 1-0 Group A victory in Turin on Wednesday.

Azeri captain Maksim Medvedev turned the ball into his own net on 36 minutes, but that was all Portugal could muster against their 108th-ranked opponents.

Cristiano Ronaldo failed to score at his club side’s Juventus Stadium — with the game on neutral ground due to coronavirus travel restrictions — remaining seven goals short of Iranian Ali Daei’s all-time international scoring record of 109 goals.

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Fernando Santos’s side struggled due to poor finishing, a dogged Azeri defence and a series of fine saves from visiting goalkeeper Shakhrudin Magomedaliyev.

The Portuguese were camped in front of their rivals’ goal early, with an Andre Silva header flying over the bar in the 12th minute.

The Azeri keeper kept out a Ronaldo header on 23 minutes, with Manchester City’s Joao Cancelo rifling just wide from a tight angle before the half-hour mark.

The breakthrough came from a goalmouth scramble, with Magomedaliyev punching the ball out, hitting Medvedev and bouncing into the back of his own net.

Ronaldo sent an overhead kick attempt before the break over and missed further chances to score his 103rd Portugal goal in the second half.

The five-time Ballon d’Or winner set up Bruno Fernandes with 15 minutes to go, but the Manchester United midfielder’s shot was tipped over the bar by Magomedaliyev, who saved a Ronaldo free-kick at full stretch with five minutes to go.

Portugal, who reached the World Cup semi-finals in 1966 and 2006, next travel to Serbia on Saturday and Luxembourg three days later.

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