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LONDON – 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. – Sapa-AP