England's World Cup hopes suffered a shock setback at the hands of neighbours Northern Ireland on Wednesday, the Group Six favourites slumping to their first defeat in Belfast for 78 years.
In the biggest surprise of the night's 24 European zone qualifiers Northern Ireland, who had gone four years without a competitive home win before Saturday's 2-0 victory over Azerbaijan, were not flattered by their 1-0 success.
A toothless England side barely manufactured a chance all night.
That result handed the Group Six initiative to Poland, who beat Wales 1-0 in Warsaw.
"Of course I'm very sorry, disappointed, as the players are," England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson told reporters.
"Sorry for the team, sorry for the three points we lost, sorry for the fans who paid a lot of money to travel here."
France won their Dublin showdown as Thierry Henry's goal beat Ireland 1-0 but Group Four remains too tight to call after Switzerland and Israel also won to keep it at one point between the top three.
Portugal, Italy and the Netherlands all edged closer to next year's finals in Germany but Croatia's smooth progress was brought to a halt when they were held to a shock 1-1 draw in Malta.
Serbia & Montenegro conceded their first goal in eight qualifiers but hit back for a 1-1 draw in Spain that leaves them firmly on course to reach the finals for the first time.
England had never lost a World Cup or European championship qualifier under Swedish coach Eriksson but looked bereft of ideas against a team largely made up of lower league players in Belfast.
David Healy's angled drive in the 73rd minute left England on 19 points, five adrift of Poland, but they can still win the group with home wins over Austria and Poland next month and are guaranteed at least a playoff slot after Austria could only draw 0-0 in Azerbaijan.
Poland beat Wales with a second-half Maciej Zurawski penalty and look likely to qualify at least as one of the two best runners-up if not group winners and will win the group with a draw against England in their final game.
France continued their return to form with a hard-fought victory courtesy of Henry's 67th-minute curler.
France's victory was the first in any of the games between the four main Group Four rivals and pushes the 1998 world champions to the forefront of what remains the tightest European group.
France have 16 points, along with Switzerland, who won 3-1 in Cyprus.
Israel, 2-0 winners in the Faroe Islands with just a home return to come, have 15 points, with Ireland on 13.
The Netherlands are on the verge of qualification after they beat Andorra 4-0, helped by two goals by Ruud van Nistelrooy.
The victory took them to 28 points from 10 games, four clear of the Czech Republic, 4-1 home winners over Armenia.
In Madrid, Serbia's defence was finally pierced by Spain's all-time top scorer Raul after 19 minutes but Mateja Kezman's 69th-minute equaliser ensured it was the former Yugoslavs celebrating at full time.
Serbia remain two points clear of Spain and will top the group with wins over Lithuania and Bosnia next month.
Spain have drawn five of their eight games and are not even certain of second place as Bosnia moved within a point after their 1-0 win in Lithuania.
Portugal moved closer with a goalless draw in Russia that left them five points clear in Group Three with two games remaining.
Slovakia failed to take advantage as they were held to a 1-1 draw in Latvia leaving them on 19 points, the same as Russia, to Portugal's 24.
Ukraine, the only European team to qualify so far, lost 1-0 at home to Turkey as the battle for second place in Group Two hotted up.
Turkey have 20 points from 11 games with European champions Greece on 18 from 10 after they grabbed a last-minute 2-1 win in Kazakhstan.
Denmark are also still in the hunt on 16 from 10 after they thumped Georgia 6-1.
Italy recovered from their Saturday stutter in Scotland to thump Belarus 4-1 away with a Luca Toni hat-trick, but only after recovering from an early goal for the hosts.
The Italians have 17 points in Group Five and with games against Slovenia and Moldova to come can start planning for Germany.
Norway remain second on 12 but will be furious that after their impressive 3-2 weekend win in Slovenia they went down 2-1 at home to Scotland on Wednesday. Slovenia also have 12 after a 2-1 win in Moldova, with Scotland on 10.
Sweden moved top of Group Eight as their 1-0 win in Hungary took them to 21 points, one ahead of Croatia, who will be wondering how they allowed Malta to collect their second point of the campaign.
The top two clash next month in Zagreb.