LONDON: World Cup champion Spain put its title defense back on track Tuesday night by beating France to seize control of its qualifying group, while Germany and the Netherlands claimed big victories to push them closer to the finals in Brazil.
Pedro Rodriguez scored the goal that secured a 1-0 victory for Spain in Paris, lifting the reigning champions out of a slump following back-to-back draws. France, which had Paul Pogba sent off when already trailing, fell a point behind Spain in Group I.
”They are three welcome points, and this changes our group position for the better,” Spain coach Vicente del Bosque said.
Germany surged eight points ahead in Group C by beating Kazakhstan 4-1, while the Netherlands maintained its perfect run in qualifying with a 4-0 rout of Romania. The Dutch now lead Group D by seven points. Italy remained unbeaten, with Mario Balotelli’s double giving the Italians a 2-0 victory in Malta and a three-point lead over Bulgaria in Group B.
But England stumbled again, drawing 1-1 at Group H leader Montenegro to remain two points back. And in Asia, Japan’s hopes of becoming the first team other than host Brazil to qualify for the 2014 World Cup were thwarted when Amer Sabah stopped a late penalty attempt from Yasuhito Endo to protect Jordan’s 2-1 victory.
”We had a mission,” Jordan coach Adnan Hamad said, ”and we succeeded.”
Egypt moved a step closer to its first World Cup in 20 years with a 2-1 victory over Zimbabwe. It was the first time fans had been allowed into the stadium for an Egyptian home game in more than a year.
The nine group winners in Europe qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil while the top eight runners-up go to playoffs that will determine the final four spots.
Spain had dropped two points behind France after last Friday’s draw with Finland, an unfamiliar spot for the team that has won the last two European titles in addition to the 2010 World Cup. But the Spanish are back in control after Pedro settled a fiercely contested match in Paris in the 58th minute, left unmarked to meet Ignacio Monreal’s cross from the left.
French hopes of a comeback were thwarted when Pogba picked up a second yellow card in the 78th for a late challenge on Xavi Hernandez.
”There are still three games left so there is plenty of time left to drop points, for both sides,” del Bosque said. ”This isn’t over, although it’s true France missed a chance to pull away.”
That’s exactly what Germany managed to do, getting some help when second-place Austria was held to a 2-2 tie at Ireland.
Marco Reus marked his return from suspension by scoring the opener from 20 yards in the 23rd, and rounded off the victory with another goal in the 90th. Mario Goetze and lkay Guendogan also scored for Germany, while Heinrich Schmidtgal took advantage of an error by German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer early in the second half for Kazakhstan’s only goal.
In Amsterdam, the Netherlands cruised to a sixth straight qualifying win.
Robin van Persie set up Rafael van der Vaart’s opening goal in the 12th against Romania, then scored twice himself in the second half. The Manchester United striker scored on a looping header and then from the penalty spot after Jeremain Lens was brought down by Florin Gardos. Lens rounded off the rout by tapping home in the 90th.
Like Van Persie, Balotelli was also on target twice for Italy, with one also coming from the spot. The AC Milan striker has eight goals in 19 appearances for Italy.
Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon marked his 126th appearance for Italy by saving a penalty from Malta captain Michael Mifsud in the 16th.
”It definitely wasn’t one of our best matches,’ Italy midfielder Riccardo Montolivo said. ‘But we have a star up front (Balotelli) and he decided the match.”
England might have to settle for a place in the playoffs after its third draw so far in qualifying. Poland is third with eight points, four behind England.
The night had started well in Montenegro when Wayne Rooney was left unmarked to head in Steven Gerrard’s corner in the sixth. But England failed to make the most of its dominance throughout the rest of the first half and Dejan Damjanovic equalized in the 76th-minute goalmouth scramble after an initial header was blocked by goalkeeper Joe Hart.
”I don’t think this is a particularly bad result because Montenegro is a difficult team to beat,” England coach Roy Hodgson said. ”Montenegro and Poland will have to come to us and we think it is still in our hands and we intend to make sure by winning these matches.”
Belgium remains ahead of Croatia in Group A on goal difference after Eden Hazard’s goal clinched a 1-0 victory over Macedonia. Croatia came from behind to win 2-1 at Wales.
The qualifying hopes of bottom-place Scotland officially ended with a 2-0 loss at third-place Serbia.
Portugal claimed its first win in six games by beating 10-man Azerbaijan 2-0 on the road. But it remains behind Israel in Group F on goal difference after the Israelis won 2-0 at Northern Ireland.
Russia is a point ahead of Israel and Portugal, but has two games in hand.
In Mexico City, Brad Guzan swatted away shot after shot and the Americans hung on for a 0-0 draw with Mexico, earning only their second point in a World Cup qualifier at Azteca Stadium.
The tie moved the U.S. into third place in World Cup qualifying for the North and Central American and Caribbean region, one point behind Panama and behind Costa Rica on goal difference. The Americans and Costa Ricans both have four points, but the Ticos are ahead on goal difference.
In South America, Lionel Messi helped set up Ever Banega’s header in the 43rd minute that gave Argentina a 1-1 draw with Bolivia. Argentina remains atop South American qualifying with 24 points in 11 matches. Ecuador, which trails Argentina by four points but has played one fewer game, beat Paraguay 4-1.
The top four advance automatically and the fifth-place team faces a playoff for a berth. Brazil qualifies automatically as host.
”This is a very good point,” Messi said.
”We knew it was going to be like this,” he added. ”We planned it this way with the forwards alone as we tried to get through it. … We still haven’t qualified yet, but we are getting closer.”
Also, Chile leapfrogged Uruguay into fourth place in South American qualifying with a 2-0 home victory on goals by Esteban Paredes and Eduardo Vargas. Venezuela remained in contention for its first World Cup appearance, beating visiting Colombia 1-0 on Jose Salomon Rondon’s goal in the 14th minute.
In Africa, the 10 group winners advance to a playoff to decide the continent’s five spots for Brazil. But the Pharoahs, led by former U.S. coach Bob Bradley, look well on their way after Mohamed Aboutrika’s penalty kick in the 88th minute secured a victory over Zimbabwe. It was the third win in three games for the Pharoahs.
With Australia tying Oman 2-2, Japan only needed a draw with Jordan to qualify for Brazil. But Jordan doubled its lead on the hour when Ahmad Hayel Ibrahim took a loose ball near midfield, outpaced two defenders and chipped it past sprawling goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima.
Khalil Baniateyah’s headed goal had given the hosts a 1-0 lead just before halftime.
Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa pulled one back for Japan in the 68th, taking a nifty backheel pass from Hiroshi Kiyotake and firing it past the keeper. And Japan seemed to be on the verge of advancing when Atsuto Uchida earned a penalty in the 71st after colliding with a defender in the area. But Sabah saved the penalty, delaying Japan’s qualifying hopes for at least one more match.
Japan is still six points ahead of Jordan in Group B, and is seven in front of Australia and Oman. The top two teams from each of the Asian groups earn automatic spots in Brazil.
”It is too bad we lost a penalty but it happens,” Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni said. ”We had several chances to score but without success. We lost a chance to qualify early but still it was a good match.”
Australia narrowly avoided a shocking upset against Oman, needing a header by the New York Red Bulls’ Tim Cahill in the 51st and a 25-yard strike by Brett Holman in the 85th to salvage a 2-2 draw in Sydney.
Uzbekistan leads Group A with 11 points from six matches after a 1-0 win at home over Lebanon, with South Korea improving to 10 points from five games after Son Heung-min’s late goal secured a 2-1 win over Qatar in a physical match at Seoul.