There was a seismic result in Group B on Wednesday when Scotland earned a stunning 1-0 victory away to FIFA World Cup™ runners-up France to move top of the section with three rounds of matches left to play.
After Germany 2006, few gave the Scots any chance of progressing from a group composed of both finalists and a side from the last eight, but with the final straight in sight Alex McLeish's men now sit on top of the pile. They achieved their famous win with plenty of grit and determination, not to mention a superb long-range strike from James McFadden after the Everton man received the ball directly from his goalkeeper. As for the French, their attacking quartet showed plenty of quality but have now gone two games without finding the back of the net.
To make matters worse for Raymond Domenech's team, they now find themselves in third place thanks to Italy's 2-1 triumph in Ukraine. Both Luca Toni and Gennaro Gattuso were missing for the Azzurri, yet two goals from diminutive Udinese striker Antonio Di Natale gave them just the result the needed in difficult circumstances. Andriy Shevchenko scored for the hosts, but they look to be out of the picture now that the leading trio have broken clear.
Portugal frustrated again
In Group A, Finland played the role of section spoilers yet again as they held leaders Poland to a 0-0 stalemate, four days after securing the same result against Serbia. Portugal were unable to take advantage, however, as for the second game running they were denied a home victory at the death; for Poland on Saturday, read Serbia this time. Luiz Felipe Scolari's side began well, taking the lead through Simao Sabrosa after just 11 minutes, but a late equaliser from Branislav Ivanovic earned Serbia a point and sparked ugly scenes at the end.
European champions Greece also drew, though will be far happier with the 2-2 result in Norway which consolidates their Group C lead over the Scandinavians. They may even feel they could have won, with Sotirios Kyrgiakos twice giving them the lead in the first half, only for John Carew and John Arne Riise to hit back for the hosts. Behind the pacesetters, Turkey bolstered their bid thanks to their 3-0 success against Hungary, a match which turned on the 63 rd-minute sending-off of Zoltan Gera with the scores level. Elsewhere in the group, Moldova pulled off a minor shock to collect their first win of the campaign, 1-0 at Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Czechs move closer, England prosper
Czech Republic took a huge stride towards making second place in Group D their own as they got the better of a tenacious Republic of Ireland side in Prague. Marek Jankulovski got his name on the scoresheet yet again, firing in after 15 minutes to notch the only goal of the game between the two teams bidding to join Germany in the main event next summer. Further back, Wales turned on the style to leave Slovakia with a 5-2 triumph, thanks in part to a Craig Bellamy brace. At the bottom of the table, Cyprus were 3-0 winners over San Marino, who have now conceded 43 goals in nine outings.
Group E minnows Andorra have a slightly better record, but they were made to feel the wrath of unbeaten pacesetters Croatia, who inflicted a 6-0 loss to cement their place as the section's top scorers. Croatia are now looking over their shoulders at England after Steve McClaren's charges moved second with a 3-0 success against Russia. Three points behind the leaders, England made light of several notable absences as two-goal Michael Owen led them home. Although they must still travel to Moscow and host Croatia in their final match, confidence will be high following this performance and Saturday's 3-0 defeat of Israel.
There was real disappointment for Northern Ireland, on the other hand, after a 2-1 loss in Iceland dealt their chances a devastating blow. Keith Gillespie's last-gasp own goal meant David Healy's penalty equaliser after 72 minutes counted for nothing. Spain took full advantage by beating Latvia 2-0 with Xavi and Fernando Torres on target to send the Iberians level with Sweden at the Group F summit. In the section's only other game Denmark took 36 minutes to score all their goals in a 4-0 win over Liechtenstein.
Lastly, there was relief for the Netherlands in Albania as Ruud van Nistelrooij struck on 90 minutes to give Marco van Basten's troops a valuable 1-0 victory. The Dutch are now level on points with leaders Romania ahead of their testing trip to Bucharest in October, but neither side can afford to discount Bulgaria, who stayed in touch thanks to a Dimitar Berbatov double in their 3-0 triumph over Luxembourg. Elsewhere, Slovenia beat Belarus 1-0.