England conceded their first two goals of the campaign in Group E, as they slipped to a 2-0 defeat in Croatia, four days after their slip-up at home to Macedonia. Exploiting the absence of the suspended Steven Gerrard, the stylish Croats controlled the ball in the middle of the park, carving out numerous chances before Eduardo da Silva made the breakthrough on the hour mark when he directed a looping header over the stranded Paul Robinson.
Eight minutes later, there was more misery for the England keeper when a harmless back-pass from Gary Neville bobbled viciously over his swinging foot and rolled gently into the net. Having netted six goals in their first two matches, England have ironically failed to score since the return of their talismanic striker Wayne Rooney, who still looks some way short of his irresistible best.
Courtesy of this victory, which extends their unbeaten home record to 30 official games (21 wins, 9 draws), Croatia are now one of a batch of sides at the top of the table on seven points. They lead on goal difference (+9) ahead of England (+4), Israel, who had a free night on Wednesday (+4), and also Macedonia (+3), who won 3-0 away in Andorra. With Russia returning to the race (5 pts) after defeating Estonia 2-0, five teams are now separated by just two points.
Portugal caught cold in Poland
In Group A, meanwhile, it was Portugal who came a cropper with a disappointing defeat in Poland, where their fate was sealed by an Ebi Smolarek double. Serbia took their chance to open up a gap at the top by seeing off Armenia 3-0, a result that maintains their two-point lead over Finland, who won 2-0 in Kazakhstan, and also gives them a six-point buffer over Portugal. As for Belgium, their 3-0 win over Azerbaijan places them back in the race for one of the top two places.
Surprise leaders of Group B since Saturday, Scotland went down 2-0 in Ukraine. It was Oleksandr Kucher who opened the scoring on 60 minutes, before Andriy Shevchenko made sure of the win with a last-minute penalty. France took advantage to steady the ship and return to equal first place thanks to a comfortable 5-0 success over the Faroe Islands, their opening goal coming after just thirty-six seconds through Louis Saha, before David Trezeguet added a brace near the end. Italy, meanwhile, were not quite firing on all cylinders in Georgia, but they still got a 3-1 win that takes them to within two points of the leading pair. Roberto Donadoni's boys had to wait until the 60th minute and the sending off of Jaba Kankava to seize the advantage through Mauro Camoranesi then Simone Perrotta, after Daniel De Rossi had earlier opened the scoring.
Turkey and Greece took advantage of Norway's night off to install themselves even more comfortably at the head of Group C. Turkey won in style at home against Moldova, their 5-0 success including four goals from Hakan Sukur. Reigning European champions Greece returned from Bosnia-Herzegovina with a spectacular 4-0 win, three of their strikes coming in the final eight minutes. But the night's real sensation in the section was provided by Malta, who inflicted a historic 2-1 defeat upon Hungary courtesy of a Schembri double.
Mannschaft cement favourites status
Group D provided further evidence that football will never be an exact science. While Germany's 4-1 win in Slovakia - with a brace for Lukas Podolski - might seem logical enough, the same cannot be said for the Czech Republic's 1-1 draw in the Republic of Ireland. Humiliated 5-2 in Cyprus on Saturday, the Irish were able to draw upon their reserves of pride to open the scoring through Kevin Kilbane, and then offer valiant resistance after Jan Koller's leveller two minutes later. Equally confounding was the 3-1 victory recorded by Wales over Cyprus, coming as it did on the back of the 5-1 home humbling meted out to John Toshack's charges by Slovakia on Saturday. Germany are therefore the main beneficiaries of the night's action in the group, returning to within a point of the Czechs while still having a game in hand.
In Group F, Spain now find themselves nine points behind leaders Sweden, who secured a fourth consecutive victory, 2-1 in Iceland. Without a qualifying match on the night, the Iberians are also four points behind Denmark, 4-0 winners over Liechtenstein and Northern Ireland, who prevailed 1-0 over Latvia. The task facing Luis Aragones' lads is getting taller by the day…
In Group G, finally, the Netherlands benefited from Romania's rest day to open up a 2-point lead at the top. The Dutch hardly set the world alight, but a hard-fought 2-1 victory at home over Albania secured via a strike from the in-form Robin van Persie and a Beqaj own goal was enough for Marco van Basten's boys. It was Bulgaria, in fact, who had most reason to be cheerful on the night after their narrow 1-0 triumph in Luxembourg took them into second place, leaving breathing space between themselves and a Slovenia side beaten 4-2 in Belarus.
Seven qualifying games will take place on 15 November, and one more on 7 February 2007. The next full day's action comes on 24 March 2007.