DEFENDING TITLEHOLDEERS SPAIN and a cluster of former champions coasted to comfortable 2014 World Cup qualifying wins across Europe on Friday.
Spain overtook France at the top of Group I on goal difference on the back of their 4-0 rout of Belarus in Minsk, while, in Dublin, Germany inflicted a record 6-1 home defeat on an injury-ravaged Republic of Ireland.
England entertained at Wembley with a 5-0 demolition of San Marino, Italy saw off spirited Armenia and 2018 World Cup hosts Russia added zest to their hopes of making it to Brazil with a 1-0 win over a Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal in Moscow.
World and European champions Spain warmed up for their showdown with France on Tuesday in style as Pedro Rodriguez fired a hat-trick in their emphatic victory.
“The players were relaxed from the beginning and played well together, with depth and recovered the ball well. The talent of the players did the rest. Amongst them, Pedro stood out,” said Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque.
Ruthless Germany maintained their grip on Group C, giving Ireland a night to forget at Lansdowne Road.
Ireland were playing under the title ‘Irish Free State’ when Spain won 5-0 in Dublin 71 years ago, but Germany gave Giovanni Trapattoni’s men a lesson that will earn its own unfortunate place in the history books.
Despite missing a host of regulars Irish fans will be questioning the continued stewardship of Trapattoni, who insisted he could rebuild his side after the disappointment of their Euro 2012 misadventure where they lost all three games.
The damage was done in Dublin by doubles from Marco Reus and Toni Kroos, with Mezut Ozil and Miroslav Klose adding to Ireland’s misery.
Germany move on to a perfect nine points with Sweden three points back after a nervy 2-1 come-from-behind win in the Faroe Islands.
The Swedes had to dig deep to prevent a major upset in Torshavn against a team ranked a massive 131 rungs below them in FIFA’s world rankings.
Rogvi Baldvinsson, who had a fleeting two-week spell with Bristol Rovers this year before cutting short his stay with the English League Two outfit, set Swedish nerves on edge in the 57th minute.
But Fulham winger Alex Kacaniklic levelled eight minutes later and Paris Saint Germain’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic saved their blushes to bag victory with quarter of an hour to go.
At Wembley England were inspired by a double from Wayne Rooney, wearing the captain’s armband in place of suspended Steven Gerrard, against minnows San Marino.
Danny Welbeck also contributed a brace with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlan opening his international scoring account.
Rooney moved into fifth in England’s all-time scoring charts.
“It’s not a bad result when you remember that it’s difficult when they have 10, 11 players behind the ball,” said the Manchester United striker.
“I’m extremely proud to be in the top five of England’s top scorers.”
England top Group H on seven points, three clear of Montenegro and Poland, who they meet on Tuesday in Warsaw.
Victory came at a price however with Theo Walcott being taken to hospital with a chest injury after a rash challenge by San Marino goalkeeper Aldo Simoncini early in the first half.
“He (Simoncini) has put Theo in hospital and we will have to wait to find out the extent of the injury. It put a bit of dampener on the evening,” England manager Roy Hodgson said.
“If I was describing it as reckless I would be being kind. It was a very fierce challenge.”
Italy took outright possession of Group B after their win in Armenia with Bulgaria held to a 1-1 draw by Denmark.
Fabio Capello’s Russia earned their first ever win over Portugal in the post-Soviet era courtesy of Alexander Kerzhakov’s first half goal in Moscow.
Russia, who agonisingly missed out on the 2010 finals on away goals to Slovenia in the play-offs, took sole possession at the top of Group F, with Portugal now placed second, three points behind.
Holland top Group D on goal difference from Romania, 1-0 winners in Turkey, after their 3-0 defeat of Andorra.
Iceland moved to within one point of Group E leaders Switzerland, held 1-1 by Norway, courtesy of a 2-1 win over Albania, while there is a three-way traffic jam at the top of Group G with Greece, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Slovakia all on seven points.
Belgium beat Serbia 3-0 to go joint top of Group A.
In the same section, Wales grabbed their first points of the campaign following a late dramatic 2-1 win over Scotland in Cardiff.
Only the nine group winners are assured of places in the finals in Brazil in 2014 with the eight best runners-up going into a play-off.
Tonight’s results in full:
Serbia 0 Belgium 3 (Benteke 34, De Bruyne 68, Mirallas 90+1)
Macedonia 1 (Ibraimi 16) Croatia 2 (Corluka 33, Rakitic 61)
Wales 2 (Bale 81-pen, 89) Scotland 1 (Morrison 27)
At Plzen, Czech Republic
Czech Republic 3 (Gebre Selassie 34, Pekhart 52, Rezek 67) Malta 1 (Briffa 38)
Armenia 1 (Mkhitaryan 27) Italy 3 (Pirlo 11-pen, De Rossi 64, Osvaldo 82)
Bulgaria 1 (Rangelov 7) Denmark 1 (Bendtner 40)
Faroe Islands 1 (Baldvinsson 57) Sweden 2 (Kacaniklic 65, Ibrahimovic 75)
Kazakhstan 0 Austria 0
Republic of Ireland 1 (Keogh 90+2) Germany 6 (Reus 32, 40, Ozil 55-pen, Klose 58, Kroos 61, 83)
Turkey 0 Romania 1 (Grozav 45+1)
Netherlands 3 (van der Vaart 7, Huntelaar 15, Schaken 50) Andorra 0
Estonia 0 Hungary 1 (Hajnal 47)
Albania 1 (Cani 29) Iceland 2 (B. Bjarnason 18, Sigurosson 81)
Switzerland 1 (Gavranovic 79) Norway 1 (Hangeland 81)
Slovenia 2 (Matavz 38, 61) Cyprus 1 (Aloneftis 83)
Russia 1 (Kerzhakov 6) Portugal 0
Luxembourg 0 Israel 6 (Radi 4, Eden Ben Basat 12, Hemed 27, 73, 90+1, Melikson 60)
Liechtenstein 0 Lithuania 2 (Cesnauskis 51, 75)
Slovakia 2 (Hamsik 5-pen, Sapara 9) Latvia 1 (Verpakovskis 84-pen)
Greece 0 Bosnia-Herzegovina 0
Moldova 0 Ukraine 0
England 5 (Rooney 35-pen, 70, Welbeck 38, 72, Oxlade-Chamberlain 77) San Marino 0
Finland 1 (Hamalainen 63) Georgia 1 (Kashia 56)
Belarus 0 Spain 4 (Alba 12, Pedro 21, 69, 72)