LONDON: Nine nations are now sure of their places at the World Cup finals next year in Brazil, along with the hosts, after the latest round of qualifying clashes around the game.
Italy and Holland became the first European teams to book their places and thus join Asian qualifiers Japan, Iran, South Korea and Australia.
Argentina became the first South American qualifiers after winning 5-2 away to already-eliminated Paraguay with goals from Lionel Messi (two), Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria and Maxi Rodriguez. However Colombia must wait to secure their place after losing 2-0 in Uruguay to goals in the last 13 minutes from Edinson Cavani and Cristian Stuani.
The United States and Costa Rica became the first two teams from CONCACAF to qualify for Brazil. The Americans beat arch-rivals Mexico 2-0 on second-half goals from Eddie Johnson and Landon Donovan in Ohio while the Costa Ricans’ 1-1 draw in Kingston against Jamaica sent them through too.
In Europe Italy had to come from behind to seal their place with two games to spare after former Lazio striker Libor Kozak fired Czech Republic ahead after 19 minutes in Turin.
Giorgio Chellini headed the Azzurri level on 52 minutes, when Petr Cech failed to deal with a corner, before Mario Balotelli stroked home the winning penalty moments later.
Theodore Gebre Selassie recklessly gave away the penalty and a bad night for the Czech defence was rounded off when Daniel Kolar was sent off with a minute left.
Bulgaria held on to second place behind Italy with a 2-1 win in Malta but Denmark are just a point further back after skipper Daniel Agger converted a second-half penalty against Armenia. The 1-0 win was revenge for the Danes after Armenia beat them 4-0 in Copenhagen earlier in qualifying.
Robin van Persie sent Holland through to Brazil with a second-half double in a 2-0 win over Andorra.
After Turkey beat Romania 2-0 in Bucharest earlier in the evening, the Dutch knew victory would be enough to confirm their place in the World Cup finals. Louis van Gaal’s side made heavy work of it but Van Persie’s goals on 50 and 55 minutes were enough.
The battle for second place behind Holland tightened further with Hungary’s 5-1 win over Estonia giving them the advantage.
The eastern Europeans are a point ahead of both Romania and Turkey, whose qualification hopes have improved vastly following back-to-back wins under the re-installed Fatih Terim.
Germany moved to the brink of securing their place with a comfortable 3-0 win over the Faroe Islands. Per Mertesacker (23), Mesut Ozil (74 pen) and Thomas Muller (84) scored the goals while Alti Gregersen saw red for the hosts on 73 minutes.
Sweden are Germany’s closest rivals in Group C, five points adrift, after Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s goal after 27 seconds earned a 1-0 win over Kazakhstan.
Austria kept their hopes alive after David Alaba struck late to beat the Republic of Ireland 1-0 in Vienna.
Switzerland could have progressed from Group E following their 2-0 win over Norway, with defender Fabian Schar netting in each half but Iceland’s 2-1 win over Albania in the late game ensured Swiss celebrations were kept on hold.
Iceland moved up to second place – and in sight of a first ever major tournament – after goals from Birkir Bjarnason (13) and Kolbeinn Sigthorsson (47) cancelled out Valdet Rama’s ninth-minute opener.
Slovenia are a point behind Iceland in a tight group following their 2-0 win in Cyprus.
France had to twice come from behind to beat Belarus 4-2 and end their run of five games without scoring. Franck Ribery twice had to equalise after goals from Egor Filipenko and Timofey Kalachev before Samir Nasri and Paul Pogba secured three points to move France level with Spain – who have played a game less – in Group I.
Finland beat Georgia 1-0 to remain five points behind the top two.
Russia moved top of Group F with a 3-1 win over Israel in St Petersburg. Fabio Capello’s side are a point ahead of Portugal, who were not in action, while Luxembourg produced the shock of the night as they beat Northern Ireland 3-2. Mathias Janisch stabbed home the winner three minutes from the end.
England edged to the top of Group H with a goalless draw against Ukraine, who joined the inactive Montenegro a point behind Roy Hodgson’s men. Poland are two points further back after they eased past San Marino 5-1 – Piotr Zielinski netting twice for the visitors.
Bosnia and Greece remain locked on 19 points at the top of Group G after they both collected three points. Bosnia came from behind to beat Slovakia 2-1 – Ermin Bicakcic and Izet Hajrovic scoring in the final 20 minutes – while Dimitris Salpigidis (58) grabbed the only goal as Greece beat 10-man Latvia. Lithuania beat Liechtenstein 2-0 to round out the group.
Group A’s top two Belgium and Croatia were not in competitive action, and in their absence it was left to Scotland to climb off the foot of the section with a 2-1 win in Macedonia.
Wales slipped to bottom – despite the presence of 100million euro winger Gareth Bale off the bench – as they were thumped 3-0 by Serbia in Cardiff.