France, Italy and FIFA World Cup™ finalists the Netherlands all picked up away successes today in qualifying matches for UEFA EURO 2012, while holders and world champions Spain also prospered thanks to new goal king David Villa.
France bagged a 2-0 win over tiny Luxembourg to continue their resurrection under new boss Laurent Blanc after a catastrophic FIFA World Cup in South Africa under predecessor Raymond Domenech. Defender Philippe Mexes rose high to nod in after 28 minutes and Yoann Gourcuff netted the clincher on 72 minutes.
Only some wayward finishing prevented a much healthier boost to French goal difference from materialising. They still lead opening day Group D conquerors Belarus by four points - though the Eastern Europeans have a game in hand - after posting a sixth win on the trot to leave the traumas of last summer a fading memory.
Italy meanwhile thanked Brazilian-born Thiago Motta for a typically gritty 1-0 win in Slovenia, while Villa became Spain's all-time top marksman with a late brace - one from the penalty spot - to floor the Czechs 2-1 in Grenada after Jaroslav Plasil had broken the deadlock.
The Spaniards roared back and Villa claimed his 45th and 46th goals for La Furia Roja in quick succession to surpass Raul in the goalscoring charts. Raul scored his 44 goals in 102 matches, but Villa has outdone him in just 72 appearances. Spain, for whom Villa's Barcelona teammate Xavi won his 100th cap, are romping through Group I with four wins in as many matches for a six-point cushion over the Czechs.
Xavi, who praised the Czechs for giving as good as they got, told Spanish television: "It was a very tough match but we really fought hard in the second half." On winning his 100th cap he added: "I'm delighted and I want to keep on in this vein." The Barcelona star made his debut in 2000 in a loss to the Dutch, the side the Spanish beat to win the FIFA World Cup last summer.
Motta, in only his second game for the Italians, netted with 17 minutes remaining in Ljubljana, ensuring the Azzurri took charge of Group C. With Serbia coming from behind to edge out battling Northern Ireland 2-1 in Belgrade, unbeaten Italy are now six points clear at the top of Group C with half the qualification campaign behind them.
Serbs bounce back
Northern Ireland looked set to cause a stir at the Serbs' expense when Gareth McAuley headed the visitors into the lead from Chris Brunt's free-kick in the 15th minute for his second international goal. But Marko Pantelic levelled 20 minutes after the break and Zoran Tosic then scored a neat winner after a surging run by Milos Ninkovic with 16 minutes remaining at a practically empty Red Star Stadium. Serbia had to play the match behind closed doors after crowd trouble marred their game against Italy last year.
South Africa 2010 finalists the Netherlands are going well in Group E, and made it five wins out of five in outclassing second-place Hungary 4-0 in Budapest. Rafael van der Vaart bagged the opener after just eight minutes and Ibrahim Afellay made it 2-0 on the stroke of half-time before Dirk Kuyt and Robin van Persie wrapped up a one-sided affair.
Belgium were another side who pulled out a win on their travels with a 2-0 success at Austria in Group A, where Germany are five points clear ahead of Saturday's home banker against Kazakhstan. Axel Witsel scored both the Red Devils' goals as the Belgians went joint second with the Austrians.
Joining Germany in action Saturday are Fabio Capello's England, who travel to Wales looking to overhaul Montenegro in Group G.