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Rediff.com  » Sports » Big guns march on in Europe

Big guns march on in Europe

March 29, 2009 08:12 IST

European champions Spain continued to set the standard on Saturday when they along with Italy, Germany and the Netherlands took a significant stride towards next year's World Cup finals.

Spain, FIFA's top-ranked team, beat Turkey 1-0 in Madrid to stretch their unbeaten run to 30 matches and make it 15 points out of 15 in Group Five before they travel to Istanbul for the return fixture on Wednesday.

Stuttering France earned a vital 1-0 victory in Lithuania to stay in touch in Group Seven, although they are struggling to keep pace with Serbia who produced the day's most impressive performance with a 3-2 win in Romania.

Serbia inflicted Romania's first ever defeat in the Black Sea resort of Constanta to move three points clear in Group Seven although their win was tarnished by the behaviour of fans who threw fireworks and fought with riot police.

Goals from Milan Jovanovic and Branislav Ivanovic and an own goal from Dorel Stoica were enough for the Serbs who are on course to repeat their feat of reaching the 2006 World Cup.

While Europe's big guns shone, several smaller nations kept their dreams of appearing in South Africa on track.

WELL-PLACED

Northern Ireland went top of Group Three with a 3-2 home defeat of Poland and Bosnia-Herzegovina crushed Belgium 4-2 away in Group Five. Switzerland are also well-placed after a 2-0 win in Moldova.

Gerard Pique scored Spain's winner but he was not the only player to score his first goal for his country.

Debutant Giampaolo Pazzini claimed Italy's second goal as the world champions negotiated a potentially tricky trip to Montengero with a 2-0 win. Andrea Pirlo struck the opener.

Ireland's home draw with Bulgaria means the Italians hold a two-point lead in Group Eight which looks like providing a relatively comfortable passage into the finals.

Germany appear in total control of Group Four after thrashing Liechtenstein 4-0. Captain Michael Ballack and Marcell Jansen put the hosts two up inside 10 minutes and they cantered to victory with further goals from Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lukas Podolski. They are four points clear of Russia who beat Azerbaijan.

RUNNING AWAY

The Netherlands are running away with Group Nine after a 3-0 home defeat of their closet rivals Scotland. Goals from Klaas Jan Huntelaar and Robin van Persie left the Dutch with an eight-point lead after just four games.

France needed a second-half strike from Franck Ribery to earn the three points in Lithuania, a result that put them third in Group Seven, five points behind leaders Serbia.

"We should not gloat yet, there will be another match next week. Serbia won against Romania so there is still a lot of work," France coach Raymond Domenech said. "It seems that Serbia are going to be our main rival."

Like France, Portugal have also made a poor start to qualifying and a 0-0 draw with Sweden did little to help their cause. They remain four points behind Group One leaders Denmark, 3-0 winners in Malta, who also have a game in hand.

As with Serbia, Northern Ireland's victory was marred by crowd trouble in Belfast and during Northern Ireland's defeat of Poland at Windsor Park which put them top of Group Three.

Fighting broke out in the city before kickoff and Swedish linesman Stefan Wittberg was hit on the head by an object thrown from the crowd.

England beat Slovakia 4-0 in a friendly at Wembley where former captain David Beckham notched his 109th cap for his country, taking him past the late Bobby Moore's appearance record for an outfield player.

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