LONDON: Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and Colombia have added their names to the list of qualifiers for the World Cup finals in Brazil next year.
Friday saw the latest step forward and in Europe Belgium, considered one of the most talented young squads in Europe, will return to the finals for the first time since 2002 after a 2-1 win in Croatia guaranteed top spot in Group A. Romelu Lukaku, the Chelsea striker on loan to Everton, scored both goals.
Germany’s 3-0 home win over Ireland, with goals from Sami Khedira, Andre Schuerrle and Mesut Ozil, put them through from Group C while the Swiss won 2-1 in Albania to wrap up Group E.
Holland, with Robin van Persie hitting a hat-trick in an 8-1 demolition of Hungary to surpass Patrick Kluivert as record Dutch scorer with 41 goals, and Italy had sealed their passage to the finals before Friday’s penultimate round of qualifiers.
Holders Spain moved to the brink of qualification from Group I after captain Xavi and substitute Alvaro Negredo struck in a laboured 2-1 win at home to Belarus.
Group F leaders Russia, with a 4-0 victory in Luxembourg, and England, who beat Montenegro 4-1 at Wembley with Wayne Rooney among the scorers, remain in pole position in Group H ahead of Tuesday’s final round of matches.
Victory on a wet night in Zagreb prompted joyous celebrations from the Belgian players in front of a sizeable and vociferous contingent of travelling fans.
“I’m super happy for the team. We always believed we could qualify and now it’s here,” said Lukaku, looking ahead to a party atmosphere in Brussels for their final game against Wales.
The pacey Lukaku broke the deadlock from Steven Defour’s defence-splitting pass and doubled the lead seven minutes before the break, racing away from halfway before lifting the ball over prone keeper Stipe Pletikosa and walking the ball into the net.
Injury-hit Germany, with midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger back after a six-month break to earn his 99th cap, still swept aside Ireland.
“I think overall we played a very good qualification. We won eight of nine so we can be satisfied. Something still needs to happen though. The defence needs to become more stable,” said coach Joachim Loew.
Sweden captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic struck a late winner to earn a 2-1 victory over Austria that secured second place behind the Germans and one of the playoff spots.
The eight best group runners-up advance to a two-legged playoff in November to fill the last four European places.
Goals from Xherdan Shaqiri and Michael Lang clinched Switzerland’s passage with their successful campaign built around a rock-solid defence that has conceded just six goals.
Iceland or Slovenia will finish second in the group. Iceland, 2-0 winners over Cyprus on Friday, will secure that spot if they can win in Norway on Tuesday while Slovenia, who face the Swiss in Berne, stayed in contention thanks to Milivoje Novakovic’s hat-trick in a 3-0 drubbing of the Norwegians.
Spain’s victory in Palma de Mallorca put them three points clear of France with one match to play and a point against lowly Georgia in Albacete on Tuesday will secure the world and European champions a berth in Brazil.
Russia need a point from their final game away at Azerbaijan to qualify after brushing aside Luxembourg to move three points ahead of Portugal.
A late blunder from goalkeeper Rui Patricio gifted Israel a 1-1 draw in Lisbon to leave Portugal, who led through a first half goal from centre back Ricardo Costa, staring at the playoffs.
England will win their section with victory at home to Poland. Roy Hodgson’s side had to remain patient to overcome stubborn Montenegro who had not lost to the 1966 World Cup winners in three previous meetings.
Rooney, who missed the last two qualifiers through injury, eased England’s nerves when he struck soon after the restart and a Branko Boskovic own goal, a stunning third on his debut by Andros Townsend, and an injury-time penalty from Daniel Sturridge secured victory.
Ukraine remain one point behind and must hope England slip up against the Poles. Andriy Yarmolenko scored the only goal as the Ukrainians edged Poland 1-0 in Kharkiv which all but ended the Euro 2012 co-hosts’ hopes of progressing.
Bosnia, seeking to reach their first major tournament as an independent nation, and Greece remain neck-and-neck on 22 points at the top of Group G after home wins on Friday.
Bosnia, with Edin Dzeko scoring twice, thumped Liechtenstein 4-1 while a Martin Skrtel own goal handed Greece a 1-0 success at home to Slovakia.
Nicklas Bendtner made a sensational return from a six-month ban by netting both goals in Denmark’s 2-2 draw at home to Italy in Group B.
The striker was suspended by the Danish FA after being arrested for drink-driving but his international return was spoiled by Alberto Aquilani’s stoppage-time equaliser.
The Danes remain third, level on 13 points with Bulgaria who had two players sent off in a 2-1 defeat in Armenia.
Ecuador, Chile close
In South America Colombia qualified for the finals while Ecuador and Chile all but sealed their tickets – leaving Uruguay most likely to play a fourth successive inter-continental playoff to join them in Brazil next year.
Colombia fought back with striker Radamel Falcao converting two late penalties against a Chile side inspired by Alexis Sanchez’s first-half brace for a 3-3 draw and the point that put them in their first finals since 1998 with a match to spare.
“I was surprised by what happened to us … it could have been due the pressure accumulated over a long time,” said Colombia’s coach Jose Pekerman after his side, who had won five home qualifiers in a row, conceded three goals in the opening half hour before fighting back.
“I’m very proud of my team, I’ve rarely seen a national team in this kind of match get back from 3-0 down,” the Argentine told the post-match news conference.
Chile went ahead with a penalty by Arturo Vidal in the 19th minute after striker Eduardo Vargas was brought down.
Sanchez then scored twice in seven minutes to stun the Colombians and put Chile three up inside the opening half hour.
With Chile having lost Carlos Carmona to a red card in the 66th minute, Teo Gutierrez pulled one back in the 69th and fellow striker Falcao added two penalties in the last 15 to secure Colombia the point they needed.
Montero put Ecuador ahead when he ghosted in behind Maxi Pereira to steer the ball home as goalkeeper Fernando Muslera failed to cut out Antonio Valencia’s cross.
In Quito, Jefferson Montero scored on the half hour to give Ecuador a 1-0 home win over Uruguay and climb to third in the South American group behind leaders Argentina, who qualified last month, and Colombia.
Lap of honour
The Ecuador team did a lap in honour of their late team mate Cristian Benitez, who died suddenly of heart failure in July.
Venezuela’s slim hopes of going to the finals for the first time ended in a 1-1 draw at home to Paraguay, while a rampant Argentina, without Lionel Messi and Gonzalo Higuain, beat Peru 3-1 in Buenos Aires with Ezequiel Lavezzi scoring twice after Claudio Pizarro’s fine 21st-minute opener for Peru.
The fifth-place playoff berth has become a Uruguay fixture at the last three World Cups with them qualifying that way in 2002 and 2010, when they went on to reach the semi-finals, though they lost to Australia in the playoff in 2006.
Finishing fifth will put them into a two-legged playoff agtainst Asian qualifiers Jordan next month.
The defeat in Ecuador where Luis Suarez, joint top scorer with Messi in the group with 10 goals, came closest to an equaliser with a dipping free kick has left Uruguay with a tough task on Tuesday to beat Argentina by a big score in a bid for an automatic ticket.
A draw in Santiago, where Chile host Ecuador, will ensure both take the last two automatic places in Brazil.
Ecuador have a goal difference of plus five, Chile plus three and Uruguay, who are three points behind them both, minus one.
Going into Tuesday’s last round of the marathon 16-match group, Argentina have 32 points, Colombia 27, Ecuador and Chile 25 and Uruguay 22.
Honduras almost there
In central and North America Honduras moved to the brink of securing their place in the finals after beating Costa Rica 1-0 while Mexico’s Raul Jimenez produced a late stunning goal to give his side a tense 2-1 win over Panama.
Honduras striker Jerry Bengtson scored the only goal of the match midway through the second half to clinch the victory at the Olympic Stadium in San Pedro Sula and setting off wild celebrations in the country.
The streets of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula were filled with people celebrating and waving the blue and white flag of Honduras with the knowledge they had at least secured a playoff spot before Mexico played Panama.
“I want to congratulate the boys of the national team for their win today,” Honduras President Porfirio Lobo told reporters.
“This shows that Hondurans can do it when we decide to do it. We are going to Brazil! Long live Honduras!”
The result kept Honduras three points clear of Mexico, 2-1 winners over Panama, in the battle for CONCACAF’s third and final automatic spot.
The United States (19) and Costa Rica (15) occupy the first two places and have already qualified for Brazil.
Honduras are already assured of at least a playoff spot, against the Oceania winners New Zealand and only need a point from their final match against Jamaica on Tuesday to reach the finals for the third time and the second in a row.
Jamaica are yet to win a match in the six-nation final round of qualifying and have no chance of advancing to Brazil after losing 2-0 to the U.S. in Kansas City on Friday.