Defending titleholders Spain and a cluster of former champions coasted to comfortable 2014 World Cup qualifying wins across Europe on Friday.
Spain overtook France at the top of Group I on goal difference on the back of their 4-0 rout of Belarus in Minsk, while, in Dublin, Germany inflicted a record 6-1 home defeat on an injury-ravaged Republic of Ireland.
England entertained at Wembley with a 5-0 demolition of San Marino, Italy saw off spirited Armenia and 2018 World Cup hosts Russia added zest to their hopes of making it to Brazil with a 1-0 win over a Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal in Moscow.
World and European champions Spain warmed up for their showdown with France on Tuesday in style as Pedro Rodriguez fired a hat-trick in their emphatic victory.
“The players were relaxed from the beginning and played well together, with depth and recovered the ball well. The talent of the players did the rest. Amongst them, Pedro stood out,” Spain coach Vicente del Bosque said.
Ruthless Germany maintained their grip on Group C, giving Ireland a night to forget at Lansdowne Road.
Ireland were playing under the title “Irish Free State” when Spain won 5-0 in Dublin 71 years ago, but Germany gave Giovanni Trapattoni’s men a lesson that will earn its own unfortunate place in the history books.
Despite missing a host of regulars Irish fans will be questioning the continued stewardship of Trapattoni, who insisted he could rebuild his side after the disappointment of their Euro 2012 misadventure where they lost all three games.
The damage was done in Dublin by doubles from Marco Reus and Toni Kroos, with Mezut Ozil and Miroslav Klose adding to Ireland’s misery.
Germany move on to a perfect nine points with Sweden three points back after a nervy 2-1 come-from-behind win in the Faroe Islands.
The Swedes had to dig deep to prevent a major upset in Torshavn against a team ranked a massive 131 rungs below them in FIFA’s world rankings.
Rogvi Baldvinsson, who had a fleeting two-week spell with Bristol Rovers this year before cutting short his stay with the English League Two outfit, set Swedish nerves on edge in the 57th minute.
Fulham winger Alex Kacaniklic equalized eight minutes later and Paris Saint-Germain’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic saved their blushes to bag victory with 15 minutes to go.
At Wembley, England were inspired by a double from Wayne Rooney, wearing the captain’s armband in place of the suspended Steven Gerrard, against minnows San Marino.
Danny Welbeck also contributed a brace with Arsenal’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain opening his international scoring account.
Rooney moved into fifth place in England’s all-time scoring charts.
“It’s not a bad result when you remember that it’s difficult when they have 10, 11 players behind the ball,” the Manchester United striker said. “I’m extremely proud to be in the top five of England’s top scorers.”
In the other Group H match Moldova and Ukraine played out a 0-0 draw in Chisinau.
England top Group H on seven points, three clear of Montenegro and Poland, who they meet on Tuesday in Warsaw.
Victory came at a price however with Theo Walcott being taken to hospital with a chest injury after a rash challenge by San Marino goalkeeper Aldo Simoncini early in the first half.
“He [Simoncini] has put Theo in hospital and we will have to wait to find out the extent of the injury. It put a bit of dampener on the evening,” England manager Roy Hodgson said.
“If I was describing it as reckless I would be being kind. It was a very fierce challenge,” he said.
Italy took outright possession of Group B after their win in Armenia with Bulgaria held to a 1-1 draw by Denmark.
Fabio Capello’s Russia earned their first ever win over Portugal in the post-Soviet era courtesy of Alexander Kerzhakov’s first half goal in Moscow.
Russia, who agonisingly missed out on the 2010 finals on away goals to Slovenia in the playoffs, took sole possession at the top of Group F, with Portugal now second, three points behind.
The Netherlands top Group D on goal difference after their 3-0 defeat of Andorra. Romania, 1-0 winners in Turkey, are second.
Iceland moved to within one point of Group E leaders Switzerland, held 1-1 by Norway, courtesy of a 2-1 win over Albania, while there is a three-way traffic jam at the top of Group G with Greece, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Slovakia all on seven points.
Cool finishing by Christian Benteke, Kevin de Bruyne and Kevin Mirallas gave Belgium a valuable 3-0 win in Serbia in an entertaining Group A clash.
The result left the Belgians joint top of the group with seven points from three games along with Croatia, who came from behind to win 2-1 in Macedonia.
Serbia ’keeper Zeljko Brkic was powerless in the 34th minute, when Benteke headed Nacer Chadli’s cross into the roof of the net.
Belgium doubled their lead midway through the second half as de Bruyne broke through the middle and beat Brkic with a low shot.
Everton striker Mirallas came on for de Bruyne in the dying minutes and made an immediate impact, side-footing home a cross from the left in stoppage time
In the same group, Wales grabbed their first points of the campaign following a 2-1 win over Scotland in Cardiff.
Midfielder Gareth Bale scored with a penalty and a scorching drive in the last 10 minutes to earn Wales the win and re-energize his side’s outside hopes of a rare World Cup finals appearance.
Scotland midfielder James Morrison coolly slotted in the opening goal after 27 minutes following early exchanges characterized by some highly robust challenges from the British rivals.
Scotland forward Steven Fletcher had a header ruled out after the break for the visitors before Bale struck when he won and converted a spot kick. The Spurs star then showed he was a class above everyone else when he picked up the ball from a free-kick and sent a 25m rocket into the far corner.
In other games it was:
Czech Republic 3, Malta 1
Kazakhstan 0, Austria 0
Estonia 0, Hungary 1
Slovenia 2, Cyprus 1
Luxembourg 0, Israel 6
Greece 0, Bosnia-Herzegovina 0
Liechtenstein 0, Lithuania 2
Slovakia 2, Latvia 1
Finland 1, Georgia 1