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Big guns march on in Europe

EUROPEAN champion Spain continued to set the standard on Saturday when it, along with Italy, Germany and the Netherlands, took a significant stride toward next year's World Cup finals.

Spain, FIFA's top-ranked team, beat Turkey 1-0 in Madrid to stretch its unbeaten run to 30 matches and make it 15 points out of 15 in Group Five before it travels to Istanbul for the return fixture on Wednesday.

Stuttering France earned a vital 1-0 victory in Lithuania to stay in touch in Group Seven, although it is struggling to keep pace with Serbia, which produced the day's most impressive performance with a 3-2 win in Romania.

Serbia inflicted Romania's first ever defeat in the Black Sea resort of Constanta to move three points clear in Group Seven although its win was tarnished by the behavior of fans who threw fireworks and fought with riot police.

Goals from Milan Jovanovic and Branislav Ivanovic and an own-goal from Dorel Stoica were enough for the Serbs.

While Europe's big guns shone, several smaller nations kept their dreams of appearing in South Africa on track.

Northern Ireland went top of Group Three with a 3-2 home defeat of Poland and Bosnia-Herzegovina crushed Belgium 4-2 away in Group Five. Switzerland is also well-placed after a 2-0 win in Moldova.

Gerard Pique scored Spain's winner but he was not the only player to score his maiden goal for his country.

Debutante Giampaolo Pazzini netted Italy's second goal as the world champion negotiated a tricky trip to Montengero 2-0. Andrea Pirlo struck the opener.

Ireland's 1-1 home draw with Bulgaria means the Italians hold a two-point lead in Group Eight.

Germany appears in total control of Group Four after thrashing Liechtenstein 4-0. The Germans are four points clear of Russia, which beat Azerbaijan 2-0.

Holland is running away with Group Nine after a 3-0 home defeat of its closest rival Scotland. Goals from Klaas Jan Huntelaar, Robin van Persie and a Dirk Kuyt penalty left the Dutch with an eight-point lead.

France needed a second-half strike from Franck Ribery to earn the three points in Lithuania, a result that puts it third in Group Seven, five points behind leader Serbia.

Portugal drew 0-0 in Sweden to stay four points behind Group One leader Denmark, a 3-0 winner in Malta.

As with Serbia, Northern Ireland's victory over Poland was marred by crowd trouble in Belfast - a win that put it top of Group Three.

Fighting broke out in the city before kickoff and Swedish linesman Stefan Wittberg was hit on the head by an object thrown from the crowd.

England beat Slovakia 4-0 in a friendly at Wembley where former captain David Beckham notched his 109th cap for his country, taking him past the late Bobby Moore's appearance record for an outfield player.


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