Bulgaria beats Netherlands 2-0 in World Cup qualifier
Teenager Matthijs de Ligt's dream debut for the Netherlands quickly turned into a nightmare as he handed Bulgaria an early goal in a 2-0 defeat for the Dutch in World Cup qualifying on Saturday.
With France staying on top of Group A by beating Luxembourg 3-1 and Sweden thrashing Belarus 4-0 to go second, the Netherlands slid to fourth, behind Bulgaria.
Coach Danny Blind conceded before kickoff he was taking a risk playing De Ligt who, at 17, became the youngest Netherlands debutant since Mauk Weber in 1931. But Blind said injuries to other center backs forced him to select a player with only a handful of appearances for Ajax.
After the match, Blind accepted responsibility for the shock defeat, which was sure to lead to questions about his leadership.
''I blame myself,'' he told national broadcaster NOS, adding that, ''It can't go on like this. Things have to change.''
De Ligt's first action did not bode well, as he gave away a free kick just outside the penalty area inside the first minute with a rash challenge on Ivelin Popov.
But worse was to come four minutes later as De Ligt let a speculative high ball fall over his shoulder and collided with goalkeeper Jeroen Zoet, allowing Spas Delev to tap in for the opening goal in just the fifth minute, his first international strike.
''Of course, it's easy now to judge it was maybe too early'' to give De Ligt his first international start, Blind said.
Once it had the early lead, Bulgaria could have sat back and looked to hit the Netherlands on the counterattack, but the Dutch passing was so disjointed that the hosts were able to continue pushing forward. Delev made it 2-0 in the 20th when he curled a shot past De Ligt's attempted block and into the bottom corner of Zoet's goal.
The Netherlands, which failed to qualify for the European Championship in France last year, looks likely to struggle to reach the World Cup in Russia, which comes four years after the Dutch team coached by Louis van Gaal reached the semifinal in Brazil. Only the group winner secures an automatic World Cup spot.
Blind ended De Ligt's match at halftime, replacing him with another debutant, Wesley Hoedt of Lazio. He also sent on veteran Wesley Sneijder in an attempt to spark more creativity in midfield.
After having virtually nothing to do in the first half, Bulgaria goalkeeper Nikolay Mihaylov became busy in the second, as his side sat back to defend its lead and the Dutch finally exerted some pressure.
Netherlands captain Arjen Robben stuck by his coach after the match, saying the players were also responsible.
''We're on the pitch and we have to perform,'' he said.
LUXEMBOURG 1, FRANCE 3
While the talk before France's trip to Luxembourg was about striker Karim Benzema's ongoing absence, two other big name forwards ensured the Real Madrid star was not missed as France won to go top of Group A.
Olivier Giroud's 22nd international goal gave Didier Deschamps' team the lead, but the host leveled six minutes later when Aurelien Joachim converted a penalty to become the first Luxembourg player to score against France in 39 years.
Antoine Griezmann restored the lead, also from the penalty spot, before halftime.
Luxembourg managed to hold off France for much of the second half, before Giroud doubled his tally and extended the lead in the 77th minute, converting a cross from the left by Benjamin Mendy.
SWEDEN 4, BELARUS 0
Sweden briefly went top of the group by thrashing Belarus 4-0 in Solna, a result that put pressure on the Dutch even before kickoff in Sofia.
Emil Forsberg opened the scoring with a penalty and doubled the Swedes' lead shortly after the break thanks to a horrific blunder by Andrei Gorbunov, who let a routine shot through his arms and legs.
The Belarus keeper was at fault again when Marcus Berg beat him to the ball to head home an effort that Egor Filipenko cleared, but not before the ball was adjudged to have crossed the line.
Isaac Thelin completed the scoring.