World champions Spain regained top spot in their 2014 World Cup qualifying group on Tuesday as they beat former leaders France 1-0 in a hard-fought clash.
While Pedro Rodriguez’s second-half goal saw them take a one-point lead over France in Group I, the team they beat in the 2010 World Cup final, the Netherlands, maintained their perfect record with their sixth win in six games, a 4-0 success over Romania.
The Dutch — who have recovered brilliantly under Louis van Gaal since he stepped in after they exited Euro 2012 at the group stage — lead Group D by seven points, with second-placed Hungary having drawn 1-1 away in Turkey.
England were lucky to come away with a 1-1 draw away at Group H leaders Montenegro.
Having taken an early lead through Wayne Rooney, on the ground where his red card in Euro 2012 qualifying saw him miss the first two group games at the finals, they were fortunate to even take a point.
Montenegro still lead the group by two points and could stretch it to five if they beat Ukraine in June, before England play their next qualifier at home to Moldova in September.
Other European heavyweights had little trouble against lightly regarded opponents, with Germany cruising to a 4-1 win at home against Kazakhstan and a double from Mario Balotelli — taking his haul to 10 goals in nine games for club and country since signing for AC Milan from Manchester City — seeing Italy to a 2-0 win away in Malta.
Italy lead second-placed Bulgaria by three points — Bulgaria having drawn 1-1 with Denmark — but with a game in hand.
The Czech Republic could sneak the runners-up playoff spot, as a 3-0 win in Armenia on goalkeeper Petr Cech’s 100th appearance put them just two points behind Bulgaria with a game in hand.
The enthralling duel for top spot in Group A shows no sign of abating as Belgium edged Macedonia 1-0 in Brussels, while Croatia stayed on level terms by coming from a goal down to beat plucky Wales 2-1 in Swansea.
Both sides are on 16 points, with Belgium ahead on goal-difference. The two of them are nine points clear of Serbia, who put Scotland out of their misery by beating them 2-0 in Novi Sad to end their already dim hopes of reaching Brazil next year.
Spain dispelled notions before the match that their mastery of world soccer was on the wane after a disappointing 1-1 draw at home to unfancied Finland on Friday.
Their performance left coach Vicente del Bosque a satisfied man.
“They are three welcome points, which changes our situation in the table,” the unassuming former Real Madrid coach said. “What is better still is that we remained faithful to our style of play.”
However, Del Bosque is too experienced a hand to assume the hard work is over, with both his side and France having three games remaining.
“There are still enough matches for the fortunes to change again, so nothing is yet done and dusted,” he said.
His France counterpart, Didier Deschamps, said he was proud of the way his side kept battling even whan they were down to 10 men, after Paul Pogba was sent off in the second half.
“We kept battling, even when down to 10 men, but it is not easy against a team that dominates like Spain do,” he said. “You need to take your chances and get some breaks, and that wasn’t the case for us.”
Despite a rocky performance by England in the second half against a Montenegro side that has still got to play them at Wembley, England skipper Steven Gerrard believes they can secure automatic qualification.
“They took control in the second half, apart from the last 10 minutes, but we are still confident we can finish top of the group,” he said.