Italy, the Netherlands and reigning European champions Spain booked their places at UEFA EURO 2012 on Tuesday, and will appear in Poland and Ukraine next summer alongside Germany, who secured a slot on Friday. Elsewhere, unbeaten England defeated Wales 1-0, taking a huge leap towards qualification in the process.
Israel threatened to cause the surprise of the evening by opening the score in Croatia through a low strike from Tommer Hemmed. The goal only served as a wake-up call for Slaven Bilic’s men, however, as they pushed forward in numbers, equalising just three minutes later via an unstoppable shot from Luka Modric. The visitors’ chances then evaporated with the sending-off of West Ham defender Tal Ben Haim. Israel coach Luis Fernandez had hardly had time to adjust his formation when Eduardo struck twice in the space of two minutes to seal victory for the home side. The win propels Croatia to the top of the group, and three points in the crucial clash with nearest rivals Greece on 7 October will see them advance to EURO 2012.
In Group A, Austria and Turkey shared the points in a 0-0 stalemate, a result that will please fans of Belgium, who remain in the hunt for a play-off spot, albeit far behind group leaders Germany, who have already qualified.
Russia threw everything at the Republic of Ireland in their Group B fixture, but goalkeeper Shay Given, ably aided by his defence, managed to keep them at bay. Twice during the 0-0 draw Given had team-mates to thank for goal-line clearances, and he then pulled off a tremendous save of his own in injury time. But the result of the night in this section took place in Slovakia, where Armenia destroyed the hosts 4-0, with all of the goals coming in the second half. There are now four teams in with a realistic chance of winning the group – the Russians hold a two-point lead over the Irish, with Slovakia and Armenia sitting a point further back.
Italy kept their supporters on tenterhooks until the 85th minute of their Group C match with Slovenia, before finally making their possession count by securing a deserved 1-0 victory via a goal from Giampaolo Pazzini, who got his head to a cross into the box before slamming the loose ball into the net. Italy coach Cesare Prandelli had sent on Pazzini and Mario Balotelli from the bench in the second half, and his decision proved a wise one, the result booking Gli Azzurri's place at next summer’s finals. Serbia, who overcame the Faroe Islands 3-1, and Estonia, who dispatched Northern Ireland 4-1, will now fight it out with Slovenia for second place in the pool.
Group D saw Bosnia-Herzegovina obtain their second consecutive success over Belarus, Zvjezdan Misimovic scoring the winner in a 1-0 victory that cuts the gap between the Balkan side and France to one point, a situation which promises to add considerable suspense to their meeting in October. Les Bleus continue to struggle up front, and despite the changes made by Laurent Blanc following his charges’ tight 2-1 win over Albania last week, they still failed to create many meaningful chances against Romania on an admittedly poor playing surface. Elsewhere, Luxembourg recorded their first triumph of the campaign, beating Albania 2-1 in a match where only pride was at stake.
The Netherlands continued their relentless march in Group E, notching up their eighth consecutive win in an open encounter with Finland. Despite the 2-0 scoreline in favour of the Dutch, top spot is not yet assured for Bert van Marwijk's men, although they are now guaranteed a place in Poland and Ukraine as, at worst, best-placed runners-up even if they don't finish in pole. The only team who can deny them that are Sweden, who clinched a 5-0 win in San Marino, the first goal of which – scored by Kim Kallstrom – did not materialise until the 64th minute. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Co sit six points behind the leaders, level with Hungary, who triumphed 2-0 away to Moldova.
Greece were made to suffer in their Group F meeting with Latvia, where they trailed for most of the match following Aleksandrs Cauna’s 19th minute opener. Greek blushes were spared by Schalke defender Kyriakos Papadopoulos, who fired home an equaliser six minutes from time. The draw enables the Hellenic nation to remain within a point of leaders Croatia.
In Group G, Wales showed that they had not come to Wembley to simply make up the numbers, providing stiff resistance for England before Ashley Young scored what would prove to be the only goal of the game, dispatching an accurate cross from Stewart Downing into the net. While the English dominated proceedings, they took their foot off the pedal in the second half, and had Robert Earnshaw not contrived to miss a glorious opportunity in the final seconds, the outcome may have been somewhat different. The Three Lions now need just a point from their game with Montenegro on 7 October to qualify as section winners.
Denmark had a brace from rangy Sunderland striker Nicklas Bendtner to thank for their 2-0 win against Norway, a scoreline that saw them join the Norwegians and Portugal on the same points at the top of Group H. Portugal’s visit to Denmark on 11 October will prove crucial to deciding the final standings.
Spain qualified from Group I in impressive fashion, seeing off modest Liechtenstein 6-0 with doubles from Sevilla forward Alvaro Negredo and from David Villa, as well as solitary strikes from Xavi and Sergio Ramos. Boasting an eight-point lead over the Czech Republic with two games to play, the all-conquering Spanish have more than lived up to expectations. Vicente del Bosque took advantage of the undemanding nature of the match by offering a first competitive appearance to Thiago Alcantara in the second half.
Goal of the day
Finland 0-1 Netherlands, Kevin Strootman 29
Wesley Sneijder, picking up the ball inside the opposition half, floated in an inviting lobbed pass that looped over the entire Finnish defence. Kevin Strootman then stole in to the right-hand side of the box to hit a stunning left-foot volley past the Finnish goalkeeper.
57,911 – the total number of minutes spent between the sticks by Ireland keeper Shay Given, all competitions combined. The Aston Villa shot-stopper, who earned his 117th cap for the Republic of Ireland (with whom he has spent 9,895 minutes defending his own goal line) on Tuesday, put in another outstanding performance in his country’s 0-0 draw with Russia, confirming that at 35 years of age, his best years may still lie ahead.
What they said
“I arrived in Spain when I was three years old. It’s where I learned to read, where I grew up. I owe everything to this country and I’m going try to repay that on the pitch,” Thiago Alcantara, son of former Brazil international Mazinho, who made his international debut for La Roja against Liechtenstein.
Have your say
Will France or Bosnia-Herzegovina qualify automatically from Group D?