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September 11, 2009

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France struggles but England and Spain book berths

EUROPEAN champion Spain and a rejuvenated England booked their World Cup places with two games to spare on Wednesday by both maintaining their perfect records in qualifying.

Cesc Fabregas, Santi Cazorla and Juanma Mata earned the goals that clinched Spain's 3-0 victory over Estonia and top spot in Europe's Group 5. England secured its place in South Africa next June with a 5-1 victory over Croatia, the team which stopped it reaching the 2008 European Championship.

While they joined the Netherlands in next year's 32-nation finals, 11 more European berths are still undecided.

The 1998 World Cup winner France might miss out on a major tournament after a second straight draw. Group 7 leader Serbia held the French to 1-1 in Belgrade to leave it trailing by four points with two matches to go.

Portugal could also be relying on capturing second place and a playoff to reach South Africa, although the side - featuring world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo - boosted its chances by leaving Hungary with a 1-0 win.

World champion Italy enjoyed a 2-0 victory over Bulgaria to leave it needing only a draw in Ireland next month to qualify.

The result that pleased World Cup organizers the most was England's. More than 45,000 tickets had been sold to British fans, trailing only South Africa and the United States.

Needed a point

Although England needed only a point to guarantee a trip to South Africa, it raced into a 2-0 lead inside 18 minutes courtesy of Frank Lampard's penalty and Steven Gerrard's close-range header.

Lampard and Gerrard each added another after the break. Wayne Rooney scored a fifth when goalkeeper Vedran Runje passed straight to him after Eduardo da Silva scored a consolation goal for the hapless Croatians.

Croatia will hope England does it a favor against third-placed Ukraine next month. Ukraine drew 0-0 with Belarus to close the gap on Croatia to two points having played a game less with two to go.

Spain's win over Estonia ensured a ninth straight appearance at football's showcase event. A win was all Spain needed after Bosnia drew with Turkey hours earlier and remained four points ahead of its visitors in second place.

Belgium interim coach Frank Vercauteren offered to resign following a 1-2 loss to Armenia that eliminated his team from contention.

Italy moved closer to the finals after Fabio Grosso and Vincenzo Iaquinta scored against Bulgaria to give the world champion a four-point lead over Ireland.

Germany overcame a sluggish first half to rout Azerbaijan 4-0 as Miroslav Klose scored twice, and Michael Ballack and Lukas Podolski claimed one each to stay in control of Group 4.

France had been trailing by a goal and a player in Belgrade after Nenad Milijas gave Serbia the lead in the 14th minute from the penalty spot after France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris brought down Nikola Zigic and was sent off.

Thierry Henry equalized 17 minutes later after picking up a rebound by Serbia 'keeper Vladimir Stojkovic.

Serbia leads Group 7 by four points ahead of France with two rounds to go.


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