PARIS, September 10 – England qualified for the 2010 World Cup finals in style thrashing Euro 2008 nemesis Croatia 5-1 at Wembley and were later joined by European champions Spain who easily beat Estonia 3-0.England had enjoyed one of their worst moments two years ago when beaten by the Croats at Wembley which saw them lose out on the Euro 2008 finals at their rivals expense.
But Italian Fabio Capello has rebuilt their morale and self-belief to such an extent they totally outclassed pretty much the same Croat side.
Capello was delighted with the performance and the outcome.
"The spirit of the group, the concentration in every moment of the game, the players helping each other, the movement when the ball was with the opponents and when we had it – I was very happy with everything," purred the stylish Italian.
Capello’s satisfaction at qualifying was hardly mirrored by his Spanish counterpart, the lugubrious Vicente Del Bosque despite it being eight wins from eight.
"It wasn’t our best game tonight but we have qualified for the World Cup and that is the main thing," said the former Real Madrid coach.
"We are not thinking about the World Cup just yet. We just have to prepare for the next few games which we want to win and continue our momentum."
Elsewhere, 2006 World Cup finalists France and the team they beat in the semi-finals Portugal looked to be on safer ground for qualifying as the French drew 1-1 away at Group Seven leaders Serbia despite playing most of the match down with 10 players – goalkeeper Hugo Lloris getting his marching orders.
Portugal gained a much needed victory over Hungary in Budapest with Pepe getting their goal in the ninth minute – and putting them in even with a chance of winning Group One with two matches remaining.
The Group Four dogfight between 2006 semi-finalists Germany and Euro 2008 semi-finalists Russia is all set for a mouthwatering potential tabletopping decider in Moscow on October 10 after both were comfortable winners.
Germany took care of Azerbaijan as expected with a 4-0 win – Miroslav Klose scoring a brace – while Russia were briefly drawing 1-1 with Wales before running out 3-1 winners in Cardiff to remain a point beihnd the Germans.
World champions Italy took a giant step towards South Africa beating Bulgaria 2-0.
Fabio Grosso, who scored the winning penalty in the 2006 shootout, got their first goal with the result also doing second-placed Republic of Ireland a huge favour as they lead the Bulgarians by five points for the runners-up spot.
England’s joy will be Croatia’s pain and they are not even assured of securing second place and a play-off place as Ukraine drew 0-0 with Belarus and are now two points behind the Croats but with two games to play.
Croatia have just one match left.
France’s result relied on a gutsy effort in the hostile atmosphere of the Marakana Stadium in Belgrade as captain Thierry Henry levelled in the first-half with his 50th international goal in reply to Nenad Milijas’ ninth-minute penalty.
Under-fire French coach Raymond Domenech was justifably proud of his team, though, Serbia still remain in the box seat as they require three points from the last two matches to progress as group winners.
"I’m proud of everything about the match," said France coach Domenech.
"I’m happy for the people who believed in us and supported us. I still believe and it’s not over. I will congratulate my players."
France, though, are four points clear in second of Austria, who drew 1-1 away in Romania, whose desperate home form has cost them dearly with just two points from a possible 12 this campaign.
Portugal may still be outside the top two but Denmark being held 1-1 in Albania and Sweden beating Malta, only thanks to an 81st minute own-goal, sees them just two points off second and five off the Danes with two games to go.
Slovakia look the likeliest winners of Group Three as they won 2-0 in impressive style in Northern Ireland meaning their neighbours the Czech Republic can only hope at best for the runners-up spot.
The Czechs won 7-0 at home to minnows San Marino but it was more memorable for the return of playmaker Tomas Rosicky after 20 months out with injury.
Armenia grabbed their first win of the campaign beating former European finalists and 1986 World Cup semi-finalists Belgium 2-1 in Yerevan in Group Five leading to the resignation of coach Frankie Vercauteren.