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France, Portugal Russia edge ahead in playoffs

NICOLAS Anelka's deflected winner over Ireland put France in sight of the 2010 World Cup yesterday and Portugal took a slender 1-0 first-leg advantage over Bosnia-Herzegovina without the injured Cristiano Ronaldo.

Meanwhile, Russia edged Slovenia 2-1 in another playoff and Greece was held 0-0 at home by Ukraine.

With nine European teams already in next year's finals in South Africa, eight more chased the final four spots through the playoffs and France made the biggest move.

Anelka's 72nd-minute strike in Dublin, which cannoned off a defender and the post before finding the net, gave the French a 1-0 victory over the Irish. Raymond Domenech's team, which stumbled through the qualifying group phase, now has to avoid defeat at home on Wednesday to book a flight to the finals in South Africa next June.

France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris made two top-quality late saves to protect his side's lead and Domenech's star-studded but erratic side will be confident they won't miss out for the first time since 1994.

"We have seen that the Irish team are a very difficult team to beat," said France striker Thierry Henry, who is bidding to play at his fourth World Cup. "They didn't lose a game in qualification so what we did tonight is nice. But it's still 90 minutes to go and it's going to be a tough game for us in Paris."

There were angry exchanges on the field after the final whistle, with Ireland midfielder Keith Andrews involved in a melee with several French players.

Although Ronaldo is sidelined from both legs with an ankle injury, Portugal dominated for long spells against Bosnia, which has never been to a World Cup.

Although Bruno Alves gave Portugal a 31st-minute lead in Lisbon, Bosnia almost equalized with a minute to go when Edin Dzeko hit the bar and Zlatan Muslimovic the post in quick succession.

Two goals by Diniyar Bilyaletdinov put Russia seemingly in control in Moscow before an 87th-minute header by Slovenia substitute Nejc Pecnik left the situation wide open. A 1-0 victory for the Slovenes at home on Wednesday will put them through.

A European champion five years ago, Greece failed to break down Ukraine's defense in Athens and now has a tough task in Donetsk on Wednesday.

"The players probably had in their mind to keep (the Ukrainians) from scoring," said Otto Rehhagel the 71-year-old German who led the Greeks to their amazing triumph at Euro 2004 and is likely to step down it they don't make it to the World Cup.

"They couldn't make good combinations, while the Ukrainians moved the ball better."

Many of the European teams definitely headed for the World Cup were involved in friendlies - some against each other.

A strong lineup from Brazil beat an injury-weakened England 1-0 in neutral Doha where Nilmar headed a 47th-minute winner. Brazil striker Luis Fabiano fired a penalty over the bar.

Spain's 2-1 victory over Argentina could have read Real Madrid 2, Barcelona 1. Madrid's Xabi Alonso scored twice for European champion Spain, including a matchwinning 86th-minute penalty, while Barcelona's Lionel Messi had replied from the spot for Argentina.

Italy tried out some newcomers and was held 0-0 at home by the Netherlands. In a meeting of two more World Cup teams, Marek Hamsik's first-half penalty gave Slovakia a 1-0 victory over the United States in Bratislava.

Denmark and South Korea, who will also go into the Dec. 4 World Cup draw in Cape Town, drew 0-0.

Danko Lazovic scored Serbia's winner in a 1-0 victory away to non-qualifier Northern Ireland but World Cup-bound Switzerland tumbled 1-0 at home to Norway after John Carew's second-half penalty for the visitor.


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