PARIS, France, March 23 – Reigning champions Spain saw their chances of direct qualification for next year’s World Cup finals suffer a setback Friday, a home draw against Finland leaving them two points adrift of new Group I leaders France.
Sergio Ramos celebrated winning his 100th cap by heading Spain in front early in the second-half.
But that was as good as it got in the northern city of Gijon and Teemu Pukki’s goal 12 minutes from time stunned the reigning world and European champions.
With France beating Georgia 3-1 in Paris it is Les Bleus who top the table by two points at the halfway stage.
The French, now led by 1998 World Cup-winning skipper Didier Deschamps, had proved their mettle by drawing in Spain and goals by Olivier Giroud on the stroke of half-time, Mathieu Valbuena and Franck Ribery saw off the Georgians.
Spain now have to look for a result in France on Tuesday and hope they will not be so profligate as they were on Friday, a series of missed chances prompting Vicente Del Bosque to bring on Pedro Rodriguez, who had scored nine times in his last six internationals, for Santi Cazorla.
An effort from the Barcelona man earned a corner and it was from the set-piece that Ramos headed in his ninth international goal.
Thereafter, however, Spain drew a blank and Pukki snatched a point for the Finns as he ghosted in between Ramos and Gerard Pique to poke home.
“It’s a real shame this one got away from us,” said Ramos.
“We controlled the match but it slipped away in the final minutes. Doubtless we were thinking too much about France — now we really do have to think about that one. They are a great team, but we can beat them.”
England stay firmly in the Group H mix after trouncing hapless San Marino 8-0 away, Jermain Defoe bagging a brace.
But Roy Hodgson’s side still trail Montenegro by two points after the latter thanked a Mirko Vucinic goal for a 1-0 success at Moldova.
“It was good that so many players got a chance to play. Everyone brought their straw to the water. Even at 5-0 at half-time, we kept playing,” said Hodgson whose team travel to Montenegro on Tuesday.
Germany were almost as businesslike as England, two quickfire first half goals and a second-half clincher cementing their remarkable record of never having lost an away World Cup qualifier after swatting Kazakhstan 3-0 in Astana.
The win made it 13 points from five Group C games for Joachim Loew’s side and lifted them five points clear of Sweden, who could only manage a goalless home draw against Ireland.
Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mario Goetze took the sting out of the game with two goals in as many first-half minutes and Thomas Mueller drove home low and hard for the third for Germany.
In Group A, Croatia took the honours in their Balkan grudge match against Serbia.
First-half goals from Mario Mandzukic and Ivica Olic proved sufficient in a meeting in Zagreb which was the first between the two former foes as independent nations since the bloody 1990s war that tore apart the former Yugoslavia.
Belgium’s 2-0 win in Macedonia ensured they stay level on 13 points at the top with the Croatians.
Elsewhere, Cristiano Ronaldo picked up a booking and with it a one-match ban as Portugal could only manage a 3-3 draw in Israel, leaving the Real Madrid star’s side four points adrift of Group F leaders Russia.
Russia had hoped to bolster that margin with a win in Northern Ireland but Fabio Capello’s men must wait 24 hours after heavy snow in Belfast forced a postponement.
Fabio Coentrao rescued a point for Paulo Bento’s side in injury time after Hugo Almeida nodded on a Carlos Martins cross.
“The goal after just two minutes should have buoyed us but instead it ended up doing the opposite — we let our intensity drop and weren’t aggressive defensively,” said Bento.
The Netherlands, who were 2010 runners-up, eased past Estonia 3-0 to claim a fifth win in five and go five points clear in Group D.