Spain, Portugal slump to draws in WCup qualifying

Spain and Portugal left themselves in dangerous territory in

qualifying for the 2014 World Cup by slumping to disappointing

draws on an otherwise comfortable night for Europe’s top sides on

Friday.

Spain, the reigning world and European champion, was held 1-1 by

Finland in Group I after conceding a 79th-minute goal and is now

two points behind France, which beat Georgia 3-1 in Paris. Spain

and France meet in a showdown on Tuesday.

Portugal has even more work to do after needing an equalizer in

the final seconds to draw 3-3 in Israel. The result leaves

Cristiano Ronaldo’s team third in Group F and four points behind

leader Russia, which plays its game in hand on Saturday against

Northern Ireland.

Germany and the Netherlands both won 3-0, against Kazakhstan and

Estonia respectively, to pull clear five points clear in their

groups while a largely second-string England routed San Marino 8-0

away for its biggest win in 26 years.

Like Spain and Portugal, though, the English are up against it

at the halfway mark in qualifying as they lie second in Group H –

two points behind Montenegro ahead of their match in Podgorica on

Tuesday.

Also, Croatia beat Serbia 2-0 in the first game between the

fierce Balkan rivals since their war in the 1990s in a hostile

atmosphere in Zagreb, while Bosnia took control of Group G by

beating Greece 3-1 in a top-of-the-table match.

Spain coach Vicente del Bosque took charge of a record-setting

69th game for his country but had little to celebrate after a

second straight 1-1 home draw, having previously won 24 games

straight in qualifying for major tournaments dating back to

2007.

Typically, the Spanish dominated against Finland – going ahead

in the 49th minute through Sergio Ramos on his 100th international

appearance – but were pegged back by Teemu Pukki’s 79th-minute

volley on a rare foray forward.

”It’s too bad that we let a game that we had controlled get

away in the final minutes,” Ramos said.

Given its recent successes, it seems unthinkable that the

top-ranked Spanish may need the playoffs to reach next year’s

tournament but that could be the situation if they fail to beat

France next week.

The French claimed their third win from four games thanks to

goals by Olivier Giroud, the effervescent Mathieu Valbuena and

Franck Ribery.

”We shouldn’t get carried away and start thinking we’ve

qualified,” France coach Didier Deschamps said. ”We’re in the

best position at the moment but now we have to play Spain – they

are the best team in the world.”

If Russia beats Northern Ireland in a match that had to be put

back 24 hours after a heavy snowfall in Belfast, Portugal will find

itself seven points adrift of Fabio Capello’s side with five

matches left.

Even second place, which is likely to earn one of the eight

berths in the playoffs from the eight groups in European

qualifying, isn’t assured after the draw in Israel, which was

denied victory by Fabio Coentrao’s goal with 30 seconds left in

injury time.

”Now it is even more complicated, but the playoff place is

still on us. We need to raise the spirit of the players,” Portugal

coach Paulo Bento said.

Portugal was 3-1 down in the 70th minute, only for Helder

Postiga to start the comeback in the 72nd and Coentrao to complete

it after an error by Israel goalkeeper Dudu Aouate.

England is the other European power in trouble in its group but

the team enjoyed a romp in San Marino, the world’s joint-bottom

team in the FIFA rankings, with Jermain Defoe’s double adding to

goals by Wayne Rooney, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Frank Lampard,

Ashley Young and Daniel Sturridge.

An own goal by Alessandro Della Valle set the visitors on the

way to their biggest margin of victory since an 8-0 win over Turkey

in a European Championship qualifier in 1987.

”Obviously we were a class above our opponents,” England coach

Roy Hodgson said, ”…it was one of those games where I thought

everyone brought their straw to the water.”

Montenegro stayed in charge of the group by winning 1-0 in

Moldova, despite being reduced to 10 men with the score at 0-0

before Mirko Vucinic’s winner.

Germany is five points ahead of Sweden in Group C after goals by

Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mario Goetze and Thomas Mueller saw off

Kazakhstan for a fourth win in five matches. Sweden only drew 0-0

at home to Ireland.

Along with Russia, the Netherlands remained the only other team

with a perfect record so far after goals by Rafael van der Vaart

and Robin van Persie helped maintain the country’s record of not

losing a World Cup qualifier since 2001.

In other standout results, Bulgaria thrashed Malta 6-0 to move a

point behind inactive Italy in Group B, and Austria hammered the

Faeroe Islands by the same scoreline in Germany’s group.