For the most part, Europe’s big guns, including world champions Spain, who secured a crucial 1-0 victory over France, all came out on top during the sixth round of European qualifying fixtures for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil 2014™.
The Netherlands, Italy and Germany all took another important step towards South America, while in Group A Belgium and Croatia are neck and neck with four games to go. England, meanwhile, drew 1-1 away to Montenegro, and remain in second place in Group H. Matchday 7 is scheduled for 7 June, when the clash between Portugal and Russia is likely to be given top billing.
FIFA.com looks back at all the highlights from a critical evening of Brazil 2014 duels.
The big match
France 0-1 Spain, Group I, Stade de France
Goal: Pedro 58
Experience told in the end at the Stade de France on Tuesday, as the FIFA World Cup holders overcame France in a closely contested encounter. Demonstrating greater technical ability throughout, La Roja withstood the efforts of a young and talented French side, who will doubtless harbour regrets about several missed chances, with Karim Benzema – who has now gone over 1,000 minutes without an international goal – in particularly profligate form.
The winning goal stemmed from a long ball from Pedro towards Nacho Monreal, who beat his man down the left flank before cutting into the box and steering over an inviting low cross. Pedro, who had continued his run into the box, was quickest to respond, bundling the ball past Hugo Lloris, whose last-ditch attempts to prevent a goal proved unsuccessful.
Reduced to ten men in the last few minutes after the expulsion of Paul Pogba, Les Bleus kept pushing, but were unable to find a way past the on-song Victor Valdes, filling in expertly for Iker Casillas. The result propels the Spaniards to the top of the pool with three games left to play.
The other games
Serbia 2-0 Scotland
Wales 1-2 Croatia
Belgium 1-0 FYR Macedonia
Belgium and Croatia both emerged victorious from tricky tests, the former relying on Eden Hazard’s low drive to defeat Macedonia and the latter coming from behind to beat Wales away from home. Gareth Bale had scored first for the Welsh via the penalty spot, but Dejan Lovren’s powerful 77th-minute drive and Eduardo’s remarkable late half-volley completed the comeback for the Balkan team.
Armenia 0-3 Czech Republic
Denmark 1-1 Bulgaria
Malta 0-2 Italy
Italy, who had Mario Balotelli’s penalty and clinical finish to thank for their conquest of Malta, now boast a three-point lead at the top of Group B, and appear to have at least one foot already in Brazil.
The Czech Republic also put in an impressive display, helping fans to forget their heroes’ resounding 3-0 defeat by Denmark on Friday. Two of the Czechs’ goals versus Armenia came from Matej Vydra, a Udinese attacker currently on loan at English outfit Watford, who broke his international duck.
Germany 4-1 Faroe Islands
Republic of Ireland 2-2 Austria
Germany had their match with the Faroes wrapped up before the break, with Marco Reus, Mario Goetze and Ilkay Gundogan giving the home side a three-goal lead. Reus nabbed a second as the final whistle approached, sealing a home triumph that gives Joachim Low’s charges an eight-point lead in the section.
Further back, anything is still possible, as three teams now find themselves on eight points, following David Alaba’s last-gasp leveller for Austria in Ireland. That result will have been welcomed by supporters of Sweden, who did not play on Tuesday and have a game in hand.
Estonia 2-0 Andorra
Turkey 1-1 Hungary
Netherlands 4-0 Romania
The Netherlands chalked up yet another convincing success in Group D, seeing off Romania with a masterclass in finishing and attacking interplay. Robin van Persie (2), Rafael van der Vaart and Jeremain Lens did the damage for the Dutch, who now enjoy a seven-point lead.
Elsewhere, Hungary earned a hard-fought draw in Turkey, a result that sees them move up into second place. Ferencvaros midfielder Daniel Bode equalised for the away team, after the irrepressible Burak Yilmaz had opened the scoring on the hour mark.
Azerbaijan 0-2 Portugal
Northern Ireland 0-2 Israel
Portugal did just enough in Azerbaijan, pocketing three valuable points that allow them to remain level with Israel, who triumphed 2-0 in Northern Ireland, where Lior Refaelov and Eden Ben Bassat got their names on the scoresheet.
Rauf Aliyez’s sending-off was a pivotal moment for Azerbaijan, as it was after that moment that the Portuguese took control, going on to score through Bruno Alves and Hugo Almeida. Portugal’s duel with Russia on 7 June now falls into the ‘must win’ category, given that Fabio Capello’s men sit on top of the group with two matches in hand.
Poland 5-0 San Marino
Montenegro 1-1 England
Ukraine 2-1 Moldova
The English attacked the Montenegrin defence from the outset, with first Wayne Rooney and then Glen Johnson hitting the post. The home side were visibly shaken, and it was no great surprise when Rooney opened the scoring, rising impressively to nod home a Steven Gerrard corner.
Urged on by a raucous crowd in Podgorica, Montenegro gradually battled their way back into the match, also hitting the woodwork at one point. A quarter of an hour from the end, Dejan Damjanovic was in the right place at the right time to slam home the equaliser, following a chaotic scramble in the English box.
In the last few minutes, the Three Lions created numerous chances to win the match, but the Balkan side resisted the onslaught, retaining their two-point advance at the top of the section in the process.
Petr Cech celebrated his 100th cap for the Czech Republic in style, repelling the attacks of Armenian forwards Henrikh Mkhitaryan (top scorer in the Ukrainian League) and Yura Movsisyan to register a clean sheet in Yerevan.
The 30-year-old Chelsea goalkeeper, named Czech Footballer of the Year six times, suffered a skull fracture playing for his club against Reading in 2006 and has been forced to wear protective headgear ever since.
Netherlands 2-0 Romania, Robin van Persie 55
With an assist for the first goal and two strikes of his own during the Oranje’s 4-0 victory over the Romanians, Robin van Persie experienced a highly satisfactory night in Amsterdam. His first goal was particularly memorable, as he glanced a looping header into the net from a pinpoint cross by Arjen Robben, who had run rings around the Romanian rearguard in order to create the chance.
By taking his international tally to 34, the Manchester United striker moves past Johan Cruyff (33), draws level with Ruud van Nistelrooy and has all-time leading scorer Patrick Kluivert (40) in his sights.
10 – The number of goals scored by Mario Balotelli during his last nine matches for La Nazionale.