Spain eased to a 6-0 win at home to minnows Liechtenstein to make it six wins out of six while Italy left it late to gain a 1-0 home win over an unimpressive Slovenia, Gianpaulo Pazzini coming on as a substitute to score with five minutes remaining in front of a pitiful crowd of just 18,000.
Italy coach Cesar Prandelli put the victory down to courage.
“It was the victory of courage. We dominated in midfield but couldn’t break through and that’s why I went to three forwards (in the second half),” said Prandelli, who has restored some pride to the side after their dismal first round exit at the World Cup finals.
They join Germany – beaten finalists last time – as the three countries to have qualified by right so far joining co-hosts Ukraine and Poland.
The somewhat controversially world number one ranked team Holland, beaten by Spain in last year’s World Cup final, are all but certain to join them as they beat Finland 2-0 away to make it eight wins from eight qualifiers and need a point from their two remaining matches.
One of those is against the only team that can catch them Sweden, who beat woeful San Marino 5-0 leaving the losers pointless and having conceded 46 goals in their nine matches.
England too took a giant step towards the finals with a somewhat fortuitous 1-0 win over Wales at Wembley, Ashley Young’s early goal proving just enough, though, veteran Welsh striker Robert Earnshaw will have nightmares for a long time to come at how he came to miss an open goal.
Fabio Capello’s side lead Montenegro by six points – the Balkan side have a game in hand – with the two teams due to meet in their next match on October 7.
England manager Fabio Capello agreed the result had been the priority.
“Sometimes the result is more important than the other things,” he said.
The Euro 2000 champions France, though, still have it all to do as they stumbled to a 0-0 draw away against Romania on a terrible pitch, but with Bosnia beating Belarus 1-0 the French have just a point advantage over them.
All should be decided when they clash on October 11, though, the Romanians still entertain outside chances of topping the table themselves.
“I am disappointed with the result and with the fact the players could not achieve any supremacy on the pitch, that is an area where we must improve,” said France coach Laurent Blanc.
Two groups remain real nailbiters with Group F seeing Croatia leapfrog Euro 2004 champions Greece in the standings after the former trounced Israel 3-1 – which will probably see the losing coach Luis Fernandez’s turbulent reign come to an end – while the Greeks faltered with a 1-1 draw away in Latvia.
All should be clearer when Greece entertain Croatia in Athens next month, a match that will not be for the faint hearted given Greek fans propensity for hooliganism.
Group B too is simmering nicely for a fight to the death as Russia somehow were held 0-0 in Moscow by a Republic of Ireland side that kept a ceaseless wave of Russian attacks at bay – veteran goalkeeper Shay Given and Aston Villa team-mate Richard Dunne the outstanding performers.
“I can applaud my players for how they played the game,” said a baffled Russia coach Dick Advocaat.
“But they should have scored! We can only blame them for the fact they didn’t score.”
His Ireland counterpart Giovanni Trapattoni admitted his side had been fortunate to come away with a point.
“We didn’t do anything serious in these 90 minutes. We have been very lucky tonight as the Russians were physically much stronger,” said Trapattoni.
“But with this result we can look forward with optimism as we can qualify for the finals if we win both of the remaining matches against Andorra and Armenia.”
Slovakia completely took their eye off the ball later when instead of getting the anticipated home win over Armenia to take them to the top of the table, they slumped to a 4-0 home defeat.
Russia lead the Irish by two points while Slovakia and Armenia are a further point adrift with two matches remaining.