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Portugal, France struggling to reach World Cup

PORTUGAL, Czech Republic and France did little to improve their flagging chances of reaching next year's World Cup with disappointing draws in yesterday's European qualifying matches.

While defending World Cup champion Italy won 2-0 at Estonia to maintain its lead over Ireland, Portugal now appears to be playing in hope of securing second place in its group and a playoff spot after a 1-1 draw at Denmark.

Czech Republic is in a similar position in Group 3 despite Milan Baros' late goal securing a 2-2 draw at Slovakia, while France missed the chance to make up serious ground on Group 7 leader when it drew 1-1 against visiting Romania.

"The objective is to qualify, no matter how we get there," France coach Raymond Domenech said. "I'm not in the habit of giving up."

David Silva and David Villa each scored twice to help European champion Spain to a 5-0 win over Belgium that maintained its perfect record in Group 5, while Bosnia-Herzegovina and Turkey continue to fight it out for a playoff spot after both won.

Denmark looks to be on course for first place and automatic qualification from Group 1 after Nicklas Bendtner's 42nd-minute goal in a 1-1 draw with Portugal. The Portuguese had Cristiano Ronaldo, Simao Sabrosa and Deco in its lineup but could only respond with a late goal by substitute striker Liedson.

Portugal is in fourth place with 10 points from seven games, seven fewer than Denmark. Sweden moved up to 12 points, just one fewer than Hungary after Barcelona striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored a lucky injury-time goal to give the Swedes a 2-1 win at the second-place side.

The home team had only recently equalized with a 78th-minute penalty kick when goalkeeper Gabor Babos hit an attempted clearance that bounced off Ibrahimovic and rolled back into the Hungarian goal to revive Sweden's chances of making it to the World Cup.
Group 3 still looks likely to provide a surprise qualifier with Slovakia two points clear of Northern Ireland.

Slovakia twice led against the Czechs but substitute striker Baros headed in his 34th international goal six minutes from the end to earn the visitors a draw.

Slovakia has 16 points, two more than Northern Ireland, which drew 1-1 at third-place Poland. The Czechs are in fifth but only last-place San Marino has no chance of advancing from the six-team group.

France was jeered off the field at the end of its match, while the Romanians saluted their fans even though the draw does little for their chances of qualifying from Group 7.

France looked in control after Thierry Henry scored in the 48th minute, but France defender Julien Escude scored an own goal seven minutes later when he put a cross from the right past startled goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.

France has 14 points from seven games and trails group leader Serbia by four points. The top two play in Belgrade on Wednesday, while Austria could even overhaul France for second place after its 3-1 win over Faeroe Islands.

"There's still everything to play for," Domenech said. "Nothing is finished yet. It will go down to the last game."

AC Milan's Kakha Kaladze scored twice for Italy, the only problem being that they were both own-goals by the Georgia captain. The defender twice headed past goalkeeper Giorgi Lomaia in the second half to give Italy victory.

Italy, which beat France in a shootout to win the 2006 final, leads Group 8 with 17 points. Ireland, coached by Italian veteran Giovanni Trapattoni, remained a point back after Robbie Keane scored in the 87th minute for a 2-1 win at Cyprus.

Ivan Rakitic scored Croatia's only goal against Belarus with a 25-meter (yard) shot, moving his team to within four points of longtime leader England, which beat Slovenia 2-1. Third-place Ukraine beat Andorra 5-0.

Frank Lampard hit a penalty and substitute Jermain Defoe scored in the second half to give England an unconvincing win against Slovenia in a friendly at Wembley.

Russia kept up the pressure on three-time World Cup winners Germany at the top of Group 4 with a 3-0 win over Liechtenstein. Germany, which beat South Africa 2-0 in a friendly, leads Russia by a single point and both teams have three games to play.

Mario Gomez scored in the first half and Mesut Oezil in the second to give Germany victory over the World Cup hosts.

Switzerland is in control of Group 2 after a 2-0 win over 2004 European champion Greece, while Scotland's chances of finishing second in Group 9 to the already qualified Netherlands are still alive after a 2-0 win over Macedonia.

The Scots are now three points ahead of Norway, which drew 1-1 at last-place Iceland.

Scotland needs a point against the Dutch in the teams' last match on Wednesday, while Macedonia and Norway both need victory when they meet on the same day to have any chance of snatching second place.


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