Italy were held to a disappointing 2-2 draw by Bulgaria as the rest of Europe’s leading sides made winning starts in their first matches in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup on Friday.
Showing little of the form that took the team to the European Championship final, Italy were denied victory in their Group B opener when Georgi Milanov equalized for Bulgaria — ranked 89th in the world — in the 66th minute in Sofia.
That was the only big surprise of the opening round of qualifiers, although Portugal were hardly impressive in rallying to a 2-1 win over unheralded Luxembourg, with Cristiano Ronaldo scoring the equalizer for the visitors in a week when he has been speaking of “feeling sad” because of professional reasons at Real Madrid.
Germany would also have been expected to beat the Faeroe Islands by a bigger margin than 3-0, leaving England to record the most eye-catching result of the continent’s big guns — 5-0 at Moldova in Group H.
The Netherlands ended a four-match losing run by beating Turkey 2-0 in what looked to be a tricky opening match for the Oranje in Group D, while France overcame Finland 1-0 thanks to a goal by Abou Diaby in coach Didier Deschamps’ first competitive match as France coach. The standout score came in Liechtenstein, where the hosts were thumped 8-1 by Bosnia.
In South American qualifying, Argentina beat Paraguay 3-1 to go to the top of the standings, while Colombia and Ecuador notched important victories to boost their chances of booking a place at Brazil 2014.
Argentina’s victory resulted from a combination of the Spanish league powers. Real Madrid pair Angel di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain scored first-half goals, followed by Barcelona star Lionel Messi. Messi had hit the woodwork twice before scoring on a splendid free-kick in the 65th minute.
Jonathan Fabbro, an Argentine-born defender who is a nationalized Paraguayan, had temporarily brought the visitors level with a first-half penalty.
The result left Paraguay bottom of the standings with just four points from six games and with an uphill task of qualifying for 2014, having made the quarter-finals in 2010.
Colombia moved within a point of Uruguay with a convincing 4-0 win. Atletico Madrid striker Falcao put the hosts ahead in the second minute, Teofilo Gutierrez padded the lead with two goals in four minutes early in the second half and Camilo Zuniga added a fourth in stoppage time.
Ecuador struggled past lowly Bolivia 1-0, with the sole goal coming in the 74th minute when substitute Felipe Caicedo converted a penalty. Ecuador moved up to third in the standings while Bolivia are only above last-placed Paraguay on goal difference.
Peru won 2-1 at home against Venezuela to move out of last place while dropping Venezuela out of the top five. Juan Arango had put Venezuela ahead in the 43rd minute, but the hosts quickly repaired the damage in the second half, as Jefferson Farfan scored in the 47th and 59th minutes. The visitors’ chances of mounting a comeback were dashed when Gabriel Cichero was sent off in the 67th.
In CONCACAF region World Cup qualifiers, the surprise result was Jamaica’s 2-1 home win over the US. Rodolph Austin and Luton Shelton scored from free-kicks as Jamaica beat the US for the first time in 19 attempts despite having gone a goal down after just 35 seconds when Clint Dempsey scored.