Spain, Netherlands edge closer
© AFP

After moving eight points clear of closest Group 9 rivals Iceland and Scotland, the Netherlands are making giant strides towards becoming the first European side to guarantee a place at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.

Spain, Germany and Italy all won with varying degrees of difficulty to enhance their own claims to first place in their respective groups as did Serbia, 3-2 winners in Romania.

The big match
Romania 2-3 Serbia
Goals: Ciprian Marica 50, Dorel Stoica 74 (Romania); Milan Jovanovic 18, Dorel Stoica 44 o.g. and Branislav Ivanovic 59 (Serbia).

Serbia strengthened their position atop Group 7 with an impressive win on Romanian soil. Up against a valiant but short-on-confidence home side, Radomir Antic's visitors took control with two first-half goals and never looked like losing their grip on the game. Romania did give themselves a glimmer of hope when reducing the deficit to 2-1 shortly after the interval, but Branislav Ivanovic's effort just before the hour proved decisive as Serbia scored three and won for the second away match in succession.

The surprise
Republic of Ireland 1-1 Bulgaria
Goals: Richard Dunne 1 (Ireland); Kevin Kilbane 74 o.g. (Bulgaria).

The Republic of Ireland seemed to have done the hard work when taking a first-minute lead via Manchester City centre-back Richard Dunne, yet Giovanni Trapattoni's men were unable to put the match beyond the visitors. They were thus left to rue Kevin Kilbane's second-half own goal that handed Bulgaria their fourth consecutive draw in South Africa 2010 qualifying.

The groups
Denmark continued to set the pace in Group 1 with a 3-0 away win against Malta, thanks largely to a brace from powerful front-man Soren Larsen. The Danes top the section on goal difference and have played one match fewer than second-placed Hungary, who won 1-0 in Albania. Portugal, meanwhile, failed to translate dominance into goals and were held 0-0 at home by Sweden. The Portuguese, who have played a game more than Denmark, are already four points behind the leaders and cannot afford any more slip-ups.  

Over in Group 2, things are considerably tighter. Israel missed the chance to go top after being held to a 1-1 draw at home by UEFA EURO 2004 winners Greece. The Greeks went ahead just before the break through Portsmouth striker Theofanis Gekas, with Omer Golan levelling for Israel shortly prior to the hour mark. The result leaves Greece in first on goal difference ahead of a rejuvenated Switzerland side, 2-0 winners in Moldova thanks to goals from Alexander Frei and Gelson Fernandes, and one point clear of Israel.  

Northern Ireland achieved one of the evening's most notable results as they rose to the Group 3 summit courtesy of a deserved 3-2 victory over Poland. Nigel Worthington's men made the running from start to finish with goals from Warren Feeney, Jonny Evans and a Michal Zewlakow own goal taking them a point clear of Slovakia, who were not in competitive action. For their part, the Czech Republic continue to experience difficulties going forward and could only pick up a goalless draw in Slovenia.

Beaten in their last two friendlies, Germany made the most of Liechtenstein's visit to bounce back with a morale-boosting 4-0 win. That kept Joachim Low's men four points ahead of Russia, who recorded a 2-0 triumph in Azerbaijan thanks to goalscorers Roman Pavlyuchenko and Konstantin Zyryanov. Guus Hiddink's charges now look to be the only team capable of challenging Germany for the automatic spot in Group 4 after Wales succumbed 2-0 at home against Finland.

In Group 5, Spain celebrated a hard-fought 1-0 success against Turkey courtesy of Gerard Pique's first international goal. The European champions remain unbeaten in 30 matches and have won 27 of those encounters, but they were nowhere near their best and had to wait until the 44th minute for their first shot. They now lie six points clear of their closest rivals ahead of their trip to Istanbul on Wednesday, with Bosnia-Herzegovina newly installed in second after triumphing 4-2 in Belgium.

France also collected a valuable result on their travels when they ran out 1-0 winners in Lithuania, Franck Ribery making the difference with a powerful left-footed effort from outside the area. Runners-up at the last FIFA World Cup, Les Bleus lie five points shy of Group 7 pacesetters Serbia, having played a game less, and increased their chances of ending their campaign in the top two berths.

World champions Italy were missing eight regulars, meanwhile, but they still plundered maximum points in Montenegro. An Andrea Pirlo penalty after 11 minutes set them on their way and they made sure of the result thanks to Giampaolo Pazzini's goal 17 minutes from time. Marcello Lippi's men now enjoy a two-point cushion in Group 8 and are sure to be brimming with confidence as they look ahead to welcoming the Republic of Ireland on Wednesday. In the same section, Cyprus notched their first victory of the campaign by overcoming Georgia 2-1.

Lastly, in Group 9, the Netherlands made it four wins out of four by seeing off Scotland with a comfortable 3-0 scoreline.

The stat
40 - The number of consecutive FIFA World Cup qualifiers Spain have now contested without tasting defeat.

The goal
Moldova 0-2 Switzerland
Goal: Alexander Frei 32 (0-1)

Released in superb fashion by Blaise N'Kufo, Frei awaited his moment before firing a cross-shot beyond Stanislas Namasco for his 38th goal in 64 international outings.

What they said
"I'm pleased with the result and the performance. We now have a two-point lead over the Republic of Ireland and on Wednesday we'll get a chance to increase our lead at the top of the group," Marcello Lippi, Italy coach.

Have your say
Which will be the first team to qualify in Europe? Which of the continent's traditional powers could be heading for disappointment?