By Jay Mwamba
Portugal shot to the top of Ireland’s World Cup qualifying group after outclassing Estonia 3-1 in Tallinn last weekend.
Midfielder Luis Figo, the world’s most expensive player following his $56 million transfer from Barcelona to Real Madrid recently, was the catalyst behind the Portuguese victory with a goal and an assist.
It took the visitors only 14 minutes to take the lead, courtesy of Manuel Rui Costa. Figo made it 2-0 in the 49th minute before setting up Ricardo Pinto for the third goal (57th).
Estonia, who had gone into the match as Group 2 leaders after edging Andorra 1-0 three weeks ago, pulled one back through Andres Oper six minutes from time.
Hinting that the best is yet to come from his classy side who host Ireland next in Lisbon on Oct. 7, Portuguese coach Antonio Oliveira said: "Our players are not yet in top physical condition and that caused us some problems."
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Minnows Cyprus got two goals from Michael Constantinou (25th pen., 90th) in a 3-2 road win over Andorra that lifted them into second place in Group 2. Marios Agathokleous (77th) was the other scorer for the Cypriots, who trail Portugal on goal difference.
Emiliano Gonzalez (45th) and Ildefons Lima (51st) tallied for Andorra.
Substitute Phil Gray made a triumphant return to international soccer as Northern Ireland opened its World Cup campaign with a deserved 1-0 victory over Malta at Windsor Park in Belfast.
The Burnley forward, last capped two years ago, swept in a close-range effort after 70 minutes to put the Sammy McIlroy-coached North (three points) in early contention for a qualifying berth in Group 3.
Northern Ireland could have had a hatful of goals in a match they dominated, but were repeatedly denied by Maltese goalkeeper Ernest Barry.
Denmark beat Iceland 2-1 in Reykjavik to sneak into first place in Group 3 on goal difference. Jon Dahl Tomasson (26th) and Morten Bisgaard (49th) connected for the Danes after Eyjolfur Sverrisson (12th) had shot Iceland in front.
In Sofia, Karel Poborsky’s 73rd minute penalty lifted the Czech Republic to a 1-0 win over Bulgaria and into joint second place with the North in the group.
Nick of time
Neil McCann’s last gasp winner (89th) enabled Scotland to came away from Riga with a 1-0 decision over Latvia in their Group 6 opener. It was a bitter loss for the Latvians who controlled the match but were cruelly punished by a botched clearance on the stroke of full time.
The Scots lead Group 6 by two points following the goalless tie between Belgium and Croatia in Brussels.
In Group 5, Alexander Khatskevich (39th) and Valentin Belkevich (56th) handed Wales a shocking 2-1 loss at the start of their campaign in Minsk. Gary Speed (90th) bagged a late face-saver for the Welsh, who had Craig Bellamy ejected for throwing a punch (66th).
Nigerian-born striker Emmanuel Olisadebe got Poland off to a blazing start with a brace (3rd, 33rd) in an impressive 3-1 demolition of fancied Ukraine in Kiev. Radoslav Kaluznyi (57th) had the other goal for the Poles, who went to the top of Group 5.
Ukraine’s lone scorer was the AC Milan forward Andriy Shevchenko (13th). Norway and Armenia played out a goalless tie in the other group qualifier.
Putting their horrendous Euro 2000 outing behind them, three-time World Cup winners Germany launched their 2002 quest with a 2-0 romp over Greece in Hamburg.
Sebastian Deisler, Germany’s 20 year-old rising star, struck after 17 minutes while Marinos Ouzounidis (75th) sealed his team’s fate with an own goal.
The Germans climbed in first position in Group 9 after Finland could only manage a 2-1 win over Albania in Helsinki.
Hungary held Euro 2000 losing finalists Italy to a 2-2 tie in a Group 8 fixture in Budapest. Filippo Inzaghi (26th, 35th) grabbed both Italian goals, while Ferenc Horvath (29th, 78th) replied in kind for the hosts.
Romania moved to the top of the group with a 1-0 result over Lithuania in Bucharest, on Ionel Ganea’s 89th minute strike.
In Luxembourg, Yugoslavia blanked the home side 2-0 on goals by Savo Milosevic (4th) and Slavisa Jokanovic (26th) to lead Group 1 ahead of Russia, who prevailed 1-0 in Switzerland on Vladimir Beschastnykh’s 74th minute effort.
Okan Buruk (45th) and Emre Belozoglu (70th) led Turkey past Moldova (2-0) in Istanbul. The Turks share first position in Group with Slovakia who defeated Macedonia by the same margin in Bratislava. Goran Lazarevski (3rd own goal) and Igor Demo (74th) accounted for the scoreline in that encounter.
Sweden pipped Azerbaijan 1-0 in Baku to claim second position. Anders Svensson (10th) was on target. And in Group 7, Gerard (39th) and Joseba Etxeberria (72nd) helped Spain scrap past Bosnia in Sarajevo.