Macedonia, Slovakia, Ukraine, Spain and Wales got their quests to reach the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ off on a positive note in front of their own fans today, while Latvia, Republic of Ireland and Turkey seized three points on their travels. Elsewhere, Poland and Slovenia shared the spoils on their curtain-raiser.
Martin Skrtel arrested Slovakia's run of five hours and 19 minutes without a goal when he broke the deadlock against Northern Ireland just after the restart, and Vladimir Weiss' side appeared to be cruising towards victory when Marek Hamsik made it 2-0 with 20 minutes remaining.
However, with coach Nigel Worthington urging them to attack, and the roar of a strong contingent of travelling supporters behind them, the Irish refused to concede defeat and pulled one back when Jan Durica turned the ball into his own net. Northern Ireland continued to pursue a leveler, but Slovakia nervously held out for the full points haul.
Macedonia and Wales also had to grind out wins. George Burley's side succumbed to a well-crafted Ilco Naumoski goal after five minutes, and had goalkeeper Craig Gordon to thank for sending them in for the break at only a slender deficit. The second half was a different story, however, but despite Scotland's persistent pressure, the Macedonians held on for the three points.
Wales' winner, by contrast, was late in coming. John Toshack's charges had found Azeri goalkeeper Kamran Arhayev in inspired form until Samuel Vokes, 18, found a way past him in the 83rd minute, much to the relief of the Millennium Stadium crowd.
Republic of Ireland eased to victory a little more comfortably in Georgia. Giovanni Trapattoni's team were ahead on 13 minutes through Reading striker Kevin Doyle, before Glenn Whelan made it 2-0 on 70 minutes. Levan Kenia did pull one back deep into injury time, but it was too little, too late.
Turkey ran out 2-0 winners away, second-half goals from Tuncay Sanli and Semir Senturk undoing Armenia, who can nonetheless take encouragement from holding a side positioned tenth on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking for an hour.
It took Moldova just eight minutes to concede to Latvia. When, midway through the first half, the evergreen Vitalijs Astafjevs added to Girts Karlsons' opener, many envisaged the hosts suffering a heavy defeat.
It did not transpire to be the case. Serghei Alexeev halved Latvia's cushion on 76 minutes, initiating a wave of Moldovan attacks. Ultimately, though, Aleksandrs Starkovs' side held on for maximum points.
Scandinavian points and Sheva to the rescueIn Group 1, Sweden picked up a creditable point on the road against Albania in Tirana. The 0-0 draw was hardly a spectacle of free-flowing football, but will leave both sides reasonably pleased. Fellow Scandinavians Norway also picked up a draw, 2-2 in Oslo against an impressive Icelandic outfit. Steffen Iversen grabbed the goals for the home side while Heidar Helguson and Eidur Gudjohnsen did the scoring for Iceland.
Norway and Iceland now share second spot in Group 9, where Macedonia top the section with three points from their win over Scotland.
Andriy Shevchenko came to Ukraine's rescue over in Group 6. His spot kick in the 90th minute at home in Lviv was the only goal of a lacklustre contest against Belarus. The result sees the Ukrainians move into a four-way tie at the top of the section.
Cole inspires EnglandEngland did the job against Andorra on the road in Fabio Capello's first qualifier in charge. Chelsea's Joe Cole was the hero of the day, scoring two goals to propel the English to the top of Group 6 with a 2-0 win.
Hungary and Denmark played out a squalid goalless draw in Budapest. The Group 1 contest produced seven yellow cards but precious few scoring chances. The 2-2 draw between Montenegro and Bulgaria came from a far more appealing game, one that produced four goals. Blagoi Georgiev proved the hero for the Bulgarians as he scored an equaliser deep into stoppage time.
Israel and Switzerland also drew out 2-2 at the Ramat Gan national Stadium, Ben Sahar grabbing a late equaliser on the stroke of full-time.
Portugal made easy meat of Malta on the road in Group 1 play, Simao and Nani both scoring in a 4-0 win. Elsewhere, Romania were shocked at home by Lithuania. Marius Stankevicius, Saulius Mikoliunas and Mindaugas Kalanos did the scoring in a famous 3-0 win on the road for Lithuanians.
Serbia and Croatia win outLuka Modric scored as Croatia beat Kazakhstan 3-0 in Zagreb while neighbours Serbia strolled past the Faroe Islands 2-0. Giant striker Nikola Zigic scored the insurance goal with two minutes left on the clock.
Greece, European Champions from 2004, routed Luxembourg 3-0 on their own home soil. Vasileios Torosidis, Thefanis Gekas and Angelos Charisteas were all on target on an easy night for the visitors.
Joy Germany, shame for France
Germany did nothing less than what was expected, beating Liechtenstein's part-timers 6-0 in Vaduz. Lukas Podolski grabbed a pair of goals in the victory, which truth be told, flattered the Germans but brought them to the top of Group 6 just the same.
Austria handed France a wake-up call, winning 3-1 in Vienna. A Philippe Mexes own goal after eight minutes got things off all wrong for the visitors. Rene Aufhauser and Andreas Ivanschitz then added two more to seal the deal, making Sidney Govou's strike mere consolation.
Antonio Di Natale ensured Italy did not suffer a similar ignominy to the French, scoring twice to cap a nervy 2-1 win over Cyprus in Larnaca. The goal hero's winner came two minutes into stoppage time to save big blushes.
Belgium managed to get the better of Estonia in Liege, but only just. The 3-2 win came by virtue of two goals from Wesley Sonck and one more from Steven Defour.
Recently crowned European Champions Spain laboured to a 1-0 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina in Murcia in Saturday's last European qualifier. After missing a penalty in the first half, David Villa dusted himself off and slammed the winner home from an impossible angle in the 57th minute to move the Iberians to the top of Group 5.
Results*Saturday 6 September
*Armenia 0-2 Turkey
Georgia 1-2 Republic of Ireland
Macedonia 1-0 Scotland
Moldova 1-2 Latvia
Poland 1-1 Slovenia
Slovakia 2-1 Northern Ireland
Wales 1-0 Azerbaijan
Albania 0-0 Sweden
Norway 2-2 Iceland
Ukraine 1-0 Belarus
Andorra 0-2 England
Hungary 0-0 Denmark
Malta 0-4 Portugal
Montenegro 2-2 Bulgaria
Israel 2-2 Switzerland
Romania 0-3 Lithuania
Luxembourg 0-3 Greece
Croatia 3-0 Kazakhstan
Serbia 2-0 Faroe Islands
Liechtenstein 0-6 Germany
Austria 3-1 France
Cyprus 1-2 Italy
Belgium 3-2 Estonia
Spain 1-0 Bosnia