In a big night of European World Cup qualifying, five of the nine group leaders closed in on Brazil with wins. Belgium, Italy and Germany all took a giant step towards Brazil, as did the Netherlands, despite being held to a shock draw in Estonia. Montenegro, who secured a useful point in Poland, were joined at the top of Group H by England, while Portugal, despite coming from behind to win in Northern Ireland, can still feel Russia breathing down their necks.
A Mario Mandzukic equaliser just before the hour-mark saved Croatia from defeat in Serbia, but it was not enough to prevent Belgium from opening up a five-point lead in Group A. Marc Wilmots’ charges were made to work hard against Scotland, without ever appearing to lose control of the match. Steven Defour and Kevin Mirallas notched the goals at Hampden Park, securing a result that will allow Les Diables Rouges to travel to Croatia next week with significantly less pressure on their shoulders.
Elsewhere, Wales, playing without recent Real Madrid recruit Gareth Bale, lost in Macedonia, who climb off the bottom of the section.
Despite the absence of six first-team stars through injury and suspension, Italy did just enough to see off Bulgaria, Alberto Gilardino scoring the only goal of a match in which Gianluigi Buffon put in a fine display. There is now a seven-point gap between Cesare Prandelli’s men and the chasing pack.
Armenia, meanwhile, gained revenge for the comprehensive 3-0 loss they had previously suffered at home to the Czech Republic by pulling off a surprising win in Prague. Karlen Mkrtchyan grabbed the opener for the visitors after half-an-hour with an eye-catching long-range effort. 13 years after his first cap, Tomas Rosicky provided the Czech fans with some hope in the second half, but Gevorg Ghazaryan sealed the points for Armenia in the final seconds of the encounter.
With Denmark having emerged victorious from their clash with Malta, there are now three teams bunched together on nine points behind the Bulgarians, who have ten. The race for the play-off spot looks like going down to the wire.
Germany recorded their sixth success of the campaign without ever having to dig too deep, as Miroslav Klose, Toni Kroos and Thomas Mueller put Austria to the sword in Munich. While the Germans appear to have one foot in Brazil, Sweden took an important step towards second place and a play-off spot by triumphing 2-1 in Dublin through goals from Johan Elmander and Anders Svensson, cancelling out Robbie Keane’s 22nd-minute opener.
Estonia came desperately close to registering one of the greatest results in their history on Friday, but were denied by a stoppage-time Robin van Persie penalty. The Dutch were guilty of lifting their foot off the pedal after taking a first-minute lead through Arjen Robben. An inspired and motivated home side simply rolled their sleeves up and turned the match on its head via a brace from experienced Amkar Perm midfielder Konstantin Vassiljev, but in the end they were powerless to prevent the Netherlands’ 94th-minute equaliser.
Further down the table, Romania placed themselves in pole position for a potential play-off slot, disposing of Hungary courtesy of goals from Ciprian Marica, Mihai Mintilii and Critian Tanase, although Turkey, who put five past Andorra in Kayseri, are not mathematically out of the race for the runners-up berth just yet.
Switzerland, who remain in control of Group E, were held at home by Iceland in a high-scoring and entertaining affair. The man of the match proved to be Icelandic winger Johann Berg Gudmundsson, who landed a hat-trick, the third goal of which earned a point for his team in injury time. Curiously, he had failed to find the net in eight previous international appearances.
In the group’s other fixtures, Albania were defeated in Slovenia and Norway overcame Cyprus, moving up into second position in the process.
The Russians, who had lost their last two games, bounced back to comfortably overpower Luxembourg and remain on course to catch leaders Portugal, who have played one game more.
Greece, via a Konstantinos Mitroglou goal, had a pleasing evening all round, as their victory coupled with the Bosnians’ reverse sees them join the group pacesetters on 16 points with three games left to play.
Slovakia’s rearguard held firm against Bosnia-Herzegovina’s usually rampant attack, and Viktor Pecovsky helped them to pocket all three points 13 minutes from time. The Slovakians, who still have to play the top two, may well end up in the role of kingmakers in group G.
Montenegro eked out a draw in Poland, where Robert Lewandowski cancelled out Dejan Damjanovic’s opener, but now find themselves below England on goal difference following the Three Lions’ solid outing versus Moldova, in which stalwarts Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard were particularly impressive.
England’s upcoming opponents Ukraine now sit just one point further back after dismantling San Marino 9-0, in a game that featured eight different goalscorers.
It now appears likely that the French will have to reach Brazil 2014 via the play-offs, following their 0-0 draw with a resilient Georgian team. Despite dominating possession, Les Bleus struggled to find a way past Giorgi Loria, who was outstanding between the sticks for the home side. France have now gone 479 minutes without scoring a goal, a new record.
World champions Spain, who included Iker Casillas in goal, had no such problems in Finland, claiming victory with goals from Jordi Alba and Alvaro Negredo.