PARIS: World and European champions Spain celebrated a decisive step towards qualifying for the 2014 World Cup finals by defeating France 1-0 in the Stade de France to reclaim top spot in European qualifying Group I.
A goal by Pedro on 58 minutes was enough for manager Vicente Del Bosque’s side and they will guarantee their place in Brazil next year if they can gain seven points from their final three qualifiers.
France played well but Spain created the better of the chances and their task was sinmplified when Paul Pogba was sent off on 78 minutes after picking up two yellow cards.
Holland maintained their perfect record in qualifying as two goals from Robin van Persie helped them earn a convincing 4-0 Group D win over Romania at the Amsterdam ArenA.
Louis van Gaal’s side are head and shoulders above their rivals in Group D. Rafael Van der Vaart opened the scoring in the 11th minute, while after the break Van Persie struck twice, the second a penalty. Jeremain Lens added a fourth in the last minute, as Holland extended their lead at the top of the pool to seven points.
Also in Group D, substitute Daniel Bode scored two minutes after coming on as Hungary earned a valuable 1-1 draw at Turkey. Burak Yilmaz had given Turkey the lead eight minutes earlier but Bode ensured honours were shared as both sides looked for a win to improve their play-off hopes.
Estonia won the battle of the minnows at the foot of the group with a routine 2-0 victory at home to Andorra. Goals either side of half-time from Henri Anier and Joel Lindpere earned the hosts their second win in the pool.
It doubled their points tally to six while their opponents remain without a single one.
In Group C, Germany took another step towards Brazil thanks to their Borussia Dortmund connection in a 4-1 win over Kazakhstan. Marco Reus was on target twice with Mario Gotze and Ilkay Gundogan also scoring for Joachim Low’s men.
Greuther Furth’s Heinrich Schmidtgal punished an error by keeper Manuel Neuer to score a Kazakh consolation.
Mario Balotelli continued his hot streak in front of goal with a brace to fire Italy to a 2-0 victory over Malta in Group B.
The AC Milan striker has scored 10 goals in nine appearances for club and country since leaving Manchester City in January, with his seventh-minute penalty putting Italy on the right track at Ta’ Qali.
Gianluigi Buffon did have to deny Malta’s Michael Mifsud from the spot, though, before Balotelli found his second goal at the end of a devastating team move just before the break.
Italy did enough against a lacklustre Malta side to pull three points clear of Bulgaria who reached 10 points with a 1-1 draw in Denmark. Stanislav Manolev gave the visitors the lead early in the second half at Parken but a Daniel Agger penalty secured a draw for Morten Olsen’s men.
Bulgaria remain second, four points better off than their opponents whose World Cup hopes are now hanging by a thread.
Also in Group B, Matej Vydra kept the Czech Republic in the hunt for qualification with a well-taken brace to down Armenia 3-0 inYerevan.
Belgium maintained their narrow advantage over Croatia at the top of Group A after a 1-0 win over Macedonia. Eden Hazard struck the only goal just after the hour as Belgium followed up their 2-0 away win over Macedonia on Friday with another triumph.
That lifted them onto 16 points at the top of Group A but they only remain ahead of Croatia on goal difference after their rivals fought back from a goal down to beat Wales 2-1 on Tuesday night.
Second-half goals from Bruno Alves and Hugo Almeida helped stuttering Portugal to a much-needed 2-0 victory over 10-man Azerbaijan in their Group F clash in Baku.
Portugal went into the match having picked up only two points from their previous three qualifiers and having survived a scare on Friday when they needed two late goals to draw 3-3 at Israel.
They were also without suspended Cristiano Ronaldo for this clash, but Paulo Bento’s men eventually overcame the stubborn Azeris to boost their hopes of claiming a top two berth in Group F.
Goals from Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Khacheridi earned Ukraine a 2-1 victory over Moldova in Group H but only after the visitors had nearly caused an upset in Odessa.
Alexandr Suvorov netted what turned out to be a consolation for the visitors but meant a tense finish to the qualifier for the home side, who also played out the final minutes with 10 men after losing Taras Stepanenko to a red card in stoppage time.
Robert Lewandowski scored two penalties as Poland bounced back from their defeat to Ukraine by thumping Group H minnows San Marino 5-0.
The Borussia Dortmund striker netted twice from the spot either side of Lukasz Piszczek’s close-range strike while Lukasz Teodorczyk and Jakub Kosecki were also on the scoresheet to complete an easy night’s work for the hosts, who suffered their first defeat of the campaign against Ukraine on Friday.
San Marino have now have lost all six matches and shipped 29 goals in that time.
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