Saturday was a day of celebration for followers of European Zone high-flyers Italy, Germany, Denmark and Serbia as the quartet all clinched places at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, thus joining already-qualified regional counterparts England, Spain and the Netherlands.
The last two remaining automatic berths for next year's global showpiece will be decided on Wednesday, with Switzerland and Greece in contention in Group 2 and Slovakia and Slovenia chasing top spot in Group 3. The eight best second-placed sides from the nine pools will play off for the final four tickets to South Africa 2010 next month.
Always fearsome opponents in high-pressure encounters, Germany proved their mettle once more by coping admirably with the artificial surface and fiercely partisan atmosphere at Moscow's Luzhniki stadium. Relying heavily on a gritty midfield display, Joachim Low's charges battled well throughout and scored the only goal of the match via a superb team move. Up-and-coming playmaker Mesut Ozil it was who provided the spark, playing a one-two with Lukas Podolski before gliding down the left flank and pulling the ball back for Miroslav Klose to find the net. Down to ten men for the final 22 minutes following Jerome Boateng's second yellow card and pinned back by their hosts, the UEFA EURO 2008 runners-up were grateful for the reflexes of goalkeeper Rene Adler, who played possibly the finest match of his relatively short international career.
Ukraine 1-0 England
Goal: Sergiy Nazarenko 29
Let down by defensive errors, England could have few complaints as they suffered their first reverse of the campaign away against a Ukraine side that possibly deserved to win by more goals. Fabio Capello's visitors never really gained a foothold in the match and were left reeling with barely 14 minutes gone when goalkeeper Robert Green was sent off. Andriy Shevchenko missed the resulting penalty, but that proved merely a temporary reprieve as an Ashley Cole mistake a quarter of an hour later allowed Sergiy Nazarenko to notch the only goal of the game. Despite Wayne Rooney's best efforts, Ukraine held out to end England's sequence of eight consecutive wins on the road to South Africa.
Cyprus 4-1 Bulgaria
Goals: Konstantinos Charalampidis 11, 20, Michael Konstantinou 58, Efstathios Aloneftis 78 (Cyprus); Dimitar Berbatov 45 (Bulgaria)
Cyprus's second success confirmed their recent progress and it was not just the result that stood out, the home side taking apart a lacklustre Bulgaria side after the break to extinguish their opponents' fading play-off hopes.
The other games
Denmark managed precisely what was required of them in Group 1 as Jakob Poulsen's effort 11 minutes from time earned them a 1-0 triumph in a hard-fought derby against Scandinavian rivals Sweden. The midfielder's decisive blow booked the hosts only the fourth FIFA World Cup finals appearance in their history, while dropping Sweden below Portugal into third. Despite Cristiano Ronaldo limping off with an ankle injury after just 15 minutes, Portugal overcame Hungary 3-0. A brace from Simao and one from Liedson saw the Portuguese leapfrog Sweden. A win over Malta on Wednesday will now ensure Ronaldo and Co a place in the play-offs.
Surprise 2-1 losers at home against Luxembourg at the start of the qualifying process, Switzerland exacted revenge with a 3-0 away win over the same side. All three goals came from set-pieces, all three - including two for Philippe Senderos - came from headers and all three were scored within a blistering 22-minute period, moving the Swiss ever closer to sealing their progress from Group 2. They will have to be wary of Greece, though, after their closest challengers crushed Latvia 5-2 courtesy of four goals from Theofanis Gekas.
In Group 3, the pressure of finding themselves at the gates to the promised land seemed to weigh heavy on leaders Slovakia. The nervy hosts collected a telling five yellow cards and struggled to play their usual football as goals from Valter Birsa and Nejc Pecnik set up a 2-0 victory for an ambitious Slovenia side. That result leaves Slovakia needing to get a result on Wednesday away to Poland, who were beaten 2-0 by the Czech Republic, while Slovenia travel to San Marino. Anything could happen and Slovakia may well come to regret slipping up at home to their direct rivals.
No such suspense in Group 4, on the other hand, with Germany through to the main event and Russia assured of a tilt at qualification through the play-offs. Behind the leading duo, Finland made sure of third spot by seeing off Wales 2-1.
Spain's perfect record in Group 5 remains intact despite a difficult outing in Armenia, where Vicente del Bosque's men had to settle for a slender 2-1 success. As for second-placed Bosnia-Herzegovina, they secured play-off action by prevailing 2-0 in Estonia, a result that ended the dreams of a Turkey side later beaten 2-0 in Belgium.
Not scheduled for a game on Saturday, Croatia were the major losers in Group 6 after Ukraine's win over England lifted the victors into second. To stay there and claim a play-off ticket, the EURO 2012 co-hosts must simply win in Andorra on Wednesday.
Group 7 winners Serbia wrapped up progress to South Africa in scintillating style, meanwhile, putting Romania to the sword in a 5-0 exhibition. Giant striker Nikola Zigic hit the home side's first, Marko Pantelic fired the second and the duo combined to set up Zdravko Kuzmanovic for the third, before Milan Jovanovic plundered a late double to thrill the spectators in Belgrade. Section runners-up France also triumphed 5-0, overcoming the Faroe Islands to clinch a play-off place thanks in part to two Andre-Pierre Gignac efforts.
Finally, in Group 8, it took a last-gasp equaliser to give Italy the point they needed to qualify against the Republic of Ireland in Dublin. Giovanni Trapattoni's unfancied hosts twice led the way, with Glenn Whelan striking early on and Sean St Ledger registering three minutes from time, but the Azzurri levelled through Mauro Camoranesi and Alberto Gilardino to end the jostling for position at the summit. Now certain of finishing second, Ireland can begin preparing for the play-offs.
1,000 - Switzerland celebrated their 1,000th goal against Luxembourg on Saturday, Benjamin Huggel nodding in to claim that particular accolade as well as helping his team stride ever closer to next summer's finals.
Goal of the day
Armenia 1-2 Spain (Cesc Fabregas 33)
In a goal typical of the fluid football mastered by the European champions, Barcelona schemer Xavi sent a laser-guided pass over the Armenian defence and into the path of Cesc Fabregas, who beat the goalkeeper with a delightful chip with the outside of his right foot.
Wednesday's key matches
Gr 1: Sweden-Albania and Portugal-Malta for a play-off place.
Gr 2: Switzerland-Israel and Greece-Luxembourg for the top two spots.
Gr 3: Poland-Slovakia and San Marino-Slovenia for first place.
Gr 6: Andorra-Ukraine and Kazakhstan-Croatia for a play-off place.
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