Italy scraped a draw against the Republic of Ireland to join Germany, Denmark and Serbia as the latest teams to secure 2010 World Cup places in a drama-laden penultimate batch of qualifiers on Saturday.
The quartet join already-qualified England, Spain and the Netherlands, leaving two automatic berths from the continent still up for grabs heading into Wednesday’s last throw of the South Africa dice.
Russia, beaten 1-0 by 10-man Germany in Moscow, and the Republic of Ireland are among the teams assured of places in next month’s two-leg playoffs.
France, beaten on penalties in the 2006 final by Italy, are also in the playoffs after routing part-timers the Faroe Islands 5-0 to book second place in Group 7 behind Serbia, who trounced Romania by the same scoreline.
The Republic of Ireland came desperately close to pulling off a major upset in Dublin when Sean St Ledger headed them into a 2-1 lead with only three minutes to go, only for Alberto Gilardino to level for Italy on the whistle.
That put the world champions into an unassailable lead in Group 8, with Ireland as runners-up.
Italy coach Marcello Lippi praised the Azzurri’s “great performance.”
“If we had lost it would have been a big injustice because we played with passion, character and enthusiasm,” Lippi said.
Gilardino predicted Italy could go all the way again next year.
“We struggled, but the result is even better for that. At the end we deserved the draw,” the Fiorentina striker said. “We can hope to go all the way, the basis of this squad is the same as the one that won in 2006, but we’ve added some young players and some good players.Now we’ll go to South Africa in good spirits and with hope to win it again.”
Earlier, three-time world champions Germany ensured their participation in next year’s World Cup with a game to spare after a gritty defeat of Guus Hiddink’s Russia.
Miroslav Klose’s first-half goal booked Germany’s ticket with Joachim Loew’s team reduced to 10 men when Jerome Boateng was sent packing after receiving a second yellow card with 20 minutes remaining.
The win secured top spot for Germany in Group 4 ahead of their final qualifier against Finland in Hamburg.
“The team did well. We needed a bit of luck, but we have made sure of qualifying for the World Cup and you can’t ask for more,” Loew said.
Goal-hero Klose said: “We dealt well with the pressure here — it was not an easy place to play.”
Hiddink said: “We cannot be happy with the result, of course, but the team showed character in the second half. We were not good enough at finishing our chances or on the counterattack, but we still have a chance to qualify for the finals in November’s playoff.”
Denmark got the better of neighbors Sweden 1-0 to book their ticket as winners of Group 1, while Portugal moved into second and a shot at making the playoffs with a 3-0 win over Hungary.
Already-qualified England’s run of eight straight qualifying wins came to a sticky end in Dnipropetrovsk with Serhiy Nazarenko earning Ukraine a 1-0 win.
Fabio Capello’s Group 6 winners were reduced to 10 men in the first quarter of an hour when goalkeeper Robert Green was sent off for a professional foul following a mistake by Rio Ferdinand.
Aaron Lennon made way for replacement shot-stopper David James, whose first job was to prevent Andriy Shevchenko converting the spotkick — but he didn’t have to work too hard as Shevchenko fluffed his lines, hitting the post.
Spain, who had already guaranteed their place in South Africa as winners of Group 5, came through their trip to Armenia with a 2-1 win to extend their unbeaten run to nine from nine qualifiers.
Bosnia-Herzegovina secured a playoff berth with a 2-0 win in Estonia to make sure of their position as runners-up to the Euro 2008 champions.
In other action, Switzerland boosted their prospects of making it to the finals with a 3-0 defeat of Luxembourg.
Ottmar Hitzfeld’s side are in pole position to qualify as Group 2 winners, going into Wednesday three points clear of former European champions Greece, who beat Latvia 5-2.
Group 3 is too close to call with Slovenia winning 2-0 in Slovakia. Slovakia have 19 points, two points ahead of Slovenia, with the same gap back to the Czech Republic, who beat Poland 2-0.
• Austria 2, Lithuania 1
• Belarus 4, Kazakhstan 0
• Belgium 2, Turkey 0
• Cyprus 4, Bulgaria 1
• Finland 2, Wales 1
• Israel 3, Moldova 1
• Liechtenstein 0, Azerbaijan 2
• Montenegro 2, Georgia 1
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