Spain stumble as England, Germany and France win
World champions Spain were held by lowly Finland but there were wins for England, Germany, France and Netherlands as Europe's top teams returned to the task of qualifying for next year's World Cup finals on Friday.
The first of this month's two rounds of qualifiers -- with another 20-plus matches scheduled for Tuesday - went according to plan for the big guns apart from Spain who lost top spot in Group I to France after Finland forced a 1-1 draw in Gijon.
England scored their biggest victory for 26 years when they triumphed 8-0 in San Marino, Germany won 3-0 in Kazakhstan, France beat Georgia 3-1 in Paris and Netherlands scored three second-half goals to beat Estonia 3-0 in Amsterdam.
The rapidly maturing Belgium team took another step towards next year's finals in Brazil when they won 2-0 - albeit with a nervy performance in Macedonia - to stay top of Group A, level on points with Croatia who won a passionately intense derby against bitter Balkan rivals Serbia 2-0 in Zagreb.
There was also an important win for another former part of the old Yugoslavia with Bosnia beating Greece 3-1 in Zenica to move three points ahead of the Greeks at the top of Group G.
Other teams with their eyes on Rio who stumbled included Portugal, who trailed 3-1 in Israel before recovering for a 3-3 draw and Sweden, who lost ground on Group C leaders Germany when they were held to a 0-0 draw by Ireland in Stockholm.
Image: Finland's goalkeeper Niki Maenpaa (2nd R) jumps for the ball during their 2014 World Cup qualifying soccer match against Spain at Molinon Stadium in Gijon
Photographs: Vincent West/Reuters
Pukki scored 11 minutes
The biggest surprise, though, came in Gijon where Teemu Pukki scored 11 minutes from time to give Finland their second point in the group and help knock Spain off top spot.
Pukki fired past Victor Valdes on a rare counter-attack after they had withstood waves of pressure from the hosts.
Spain's Sergio Ramos, winning his 100th cap, broke the deadlock with a header from a corner just after halftime but Vicente del Bosque's side struggled to make their dominance count.
The draw leaves world and European champions Spain under pressure to get a victory next Tuesday when they visit their closest rivals France, who were too strong for Georgia in Paris.
Olivier Giroud, Mathieu Valbuena and Franck Ribery scored for France who lead the group on 10 points, two more than Spain.
Image: Teemu Pukki of Finland beats Victor Valdes (C) of Spain to score Finland's opening goal during the FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualifier between Spain and Finland
Photographs: Denis Doyle/Getty Images
England win big
England were the highest scorers on the night, showing San Marino no mercy in a demolition in Serravalle for their biggest win since a victory by the same score over Turkey in 1987.
An own goal by San Marino's Alessandro Della Valle after 12 minutes started the rout with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jermain Defoe (2), Ashley Young, Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge all finding the net.The hosts were spared a double-figure defeat but did nothing to counter the argument they should enter a pre-qualifying tournament - managing only one half-hearted attempt at goal.
Image: Jermain Defoe of England scores his second goal during the FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualifier Group H match between San Marino and England
Photographs: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Mandzukic goal helps Croatia beat Serbia
England face a sterner test on Tuesday against Group H pacesetters Montenegro, who still lead Roy Hodgson's side by two points after beating Moldova 1-0 away despite having Milorad Pekovic sent off just past the hour mark.
Mirko Vucinic scored 12 minutes from time to keep Montenegro on course for a first appearance at the World Cup finals.
In Zagreb, strikers Ivica Olic and Mario Mandzukic scored as Croatia beat Serbia to stay level with group leaders Belgium
The match was played under tight security amid fears of crowd trouble but apart from sporadic abuse from home supporters towards Serbia's players, it was incident-free after both federations agreed not to take away fans to either fixture.The sides, meeting for the first time as independent countries after the violent break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, meet each other again in Belgrade on September 6.
Image: Ivan Radovanovic of Serbia (R) challenges Luka Modric of Croatia
Photographs: Antonio Bronic/Reuters
Germany ease past Kazakhstan
Germany, playing without a recognised striker for the first time in a competitive match under coach Joachim Loew, eased past lowly Group C rivals Kazakhstan in Astana.
Two goals in three minutes midway through the first half from midfielders Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mario Goetze, put the Germans in control before Thomas Mueller made it 3-0 16 minutes from time.Germany have 13 points from five games ahead of Sweden on eight from four following their goalless draw with Ireland.
Image: Germany's national soccer team players celebrate a goal next to Kazakhstan's goalkeeper Andrei Sidelnikov
Photographs: Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters
Netherlands maintained one of only two 100 percent records left in the European qualifiers with a 3-0 Group D win over Estonia as Rafael van der Vaart, Robin van Persie and Ruben Schaken all found the net after the break.
The Dutch have taken a maximum 15 points from their five games and are well clear of Hungary and Romania who drew 2-2 in a match played behind closed doors in Budapest as punishment for racist chanting by the home side's fans in a previous game.
Russia, who have the other perfect record after four games, were due to play Northern Ireland on Friday but the match was postponed until Saturday because of heavy snowfall in Belfast.
The nine group winners in Europe qualify directly for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The eight best runners up go into a playoff round with the four victors taking the remaining spots.
Image: Ruben Schaken of the Netherlands (R) scores past goalkeeper Sergei Pareiko and Taijo Teniste of Estonia
Photographs: Michael Kooren/Reuters
Messi leads Argentina to victory
Lionel Messi produced another brilliant performance to lead Argentina to a 3-0 win over Venezuela in World Cup qualifying on Friday, but Colombia kept up the chase on the group leaders with a 5-0 demolition of Bolivia.
The duo are the front runners in the nine-nation South American group heading into the final straight of the qualifiers with their coaches looking to ensure there is a good balance of hard work to go with the immense skill.
Messi, who stated his World Cup goal once again in midweek, is at the fulcrum of everything that is good about a dynamic team coached by Alejandro Sabella in which midfielders Javier Mascherano, Fernando Gago and Walter Montillo also shone.Fans chanted favourite World Cup victory songs as Argentina displayed their attacking skills and also showed improvements in defence that reflect their work under Sabella.
Image: Argentina's Gonzalo Higuain (centre) celebrates with teammates Leonel Messi (left) and Ezequiel Lavezzi after he scored their third goal against Venezuela in a 2014 World Cup qualifying match in Buenos Aires on Friday
Photographs: Martin Acosta/Reuters
Messi two goals short of Maradona's Argentina record
Messi, who converted a penalty, is two goals short of the 34 Diego Maradona scored for Argentina, while Gonzalo Higuain's brace put him top of the South American scorers chart.
"We have a forward line that can be considered among the best in the world," Sabella said.
"Venezuela are a tough team, very compact, who know what they want. What happened was that Argentina played very well, especially in the first half and were very superior."
Sabella said he asked for and got plenty of defensive help from his forwards and this will be important for Tuesday's match away to Bolivia in La Paz where visiting teams suffer the effects of the high altitude. Argentina lost 6-1 on their last visit.
Image: Argentina's Leonel Messi is chased by Venezuela's Romulo Otero (centre) and Andres Tunez (left) during their World Cup qualifying match in Buenos Aires on Friday
Photographs: Enrique Marcarian/Reuters
Columbia keen to carry on working after demolishing Bolivia
Compatriot Jose Pekerman, whose second-placed Colombia side have notched up 19 goals to Argentina's 23, might have been talking about Argentina too when he referred to his Colombia team's strong form.
"It's hard to find teams with such skills and ball control although there are moments when you can't keep up the rhythm in these kinds of matches," he said after another win.
Colombia have a very realistic chance of ending a 16-year wait to play at the World Cup finals but Pekerman attempted to quash the hype.
"We have to keep calm and not get anxious. We don't think about the points we need to get to the World Cup, we'll carry on working," he said.
The other teams have their work cut out to keep pace although Ecuador, who had a bye on Friday, are in good shape in third place with the top four making it to the finals.
Image: Colombia's head coach Jose Pekerman
Photographs: Adam Hunger/Reuters
Ecuador crush El Salvador 5-0, Suarez rescues Uruguay
Ecuador crushed El Salvador 5-0 in a friendly on Friday before hosting Paraguay on Tuesday in Quito where they have picked up maximum points from five home matches.
Uruguay scraped back into the qualifying berths with a 1-1 draw at home to Paraguay but only because Venezuela lost. Luis Suarez scored his eighth goal in the qualifiers.
Coach Oscar Tabarez felt Uruguay had the better of the second half but conceded a late equaliser to a Paraguay side in bottom place and who look unlikely to reach the finals for the fifth time in a row.
"We know what we must do, lift our spirits and go in search of something we didn't get here," Tabarez added looking ahead to Tuesday's match away to Chile.
Venezuela occupy fifth place, which is valid for a two-legged playoff against an Asian team for another berth at the finals.
Chile were under the guidance of new Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli for the match away to Peru but lost 1-0 to a Jefferson Farfan goal scored three minutes from time, leaving them in sixth place with the same number of points as Venezuela.
The victory was a big boost for Peru, one point behind Chile, as they seek to reach the finals for the first time since 1982.
Image: Paraguay's Cristian Riveros (right) and Uruguay's Luis Suarez vie for possession during their 2014 World Cup qualifying match in Montevideo on Friday
Photographs: Andres Stapff/Reuters