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Spain, England qualify for World Cup with wins

EUROPEAN champion Spain and rejuvenated England booked their World Cup places with two games to spare yesterday 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 undecided.

Like England last year, 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 them 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 yesterday was England's, with organizing chief Danny Jordaan responding to its victory by stressing the importance of the presence of Fabio Capello's team of star names and - as importantly for the country - its traveling fans. More than 45,000 tickets had been sold to British residents, trailing only South Africa and the United States.

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.

Capello has nine months to prepare to deliver England's first major title since the 1966 World Cup.

"Let's not forget it has taken us a year or so to get to this level," captain John Terry cautioned. "We have a lot of improvements to make in this squad."

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 2-1 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 champions 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.

Germany and Russia, which won 3-1 in Wales, play on Oct. 10 in Moscow in a match that will decide the winner of the group and the team that qualifies directly for the World Cup.

In Group 1, leader Denmark damaged its chances of earning a direct route to the World Cup by drawing 1-1 with Albania.

Portugal is a further two points adrift after Pepe's early header clinched the 1-0 win over Hungary, which is also on 13 points.

"There are still four candidates in the group, because with two more wins any of the teams can reach the World Cup," Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz said.

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, though, 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. Serbia needs three points from its two remaining matches, against Romania at home or Lithuania away, to clinch a direct World Cup spot.

France needs to beat the Faeroe Islands and Austria, which still has a theoretical chance of capturing a playoff spot, to maintain its chance of direct qualification.

Ian Azzopardi's own-goal gave Sweden a 1-0 win over Malta that lifted it to within three points of Denmark with two matches to go.

Group 3 leader Slovakia strengthened its chances of automatic qualification by winning 2-0 in Northern Ireland. Slovenia is second on goal difference over Northern Ireland after beating Poland 3-0 and could still take top spot by winning its two remaining matches.

Northern Ireland must win its last match in the Czech Republic next month and hope the Slovenians slip up to earn a playoff.

Slovenia's 3-0 victory over Poland resulted in Poland coach Leo Beenhakker being fired.

Group 2 leader Switzerland could have virtually assured its World Cup place, but could only draw 2-2 with Latvia.

The Swiss are three points clear of Greece and Latvia with two matches to go.

The Netherlands won 1-0 at Scotland to complete its qualifying campaign with a perfect record and end its opponents hopes of reaching the tournament.

Thorstein Helstad and John Arne Riise scored in the first half as Norway beat Macedonia 2-1 to finish second in Group 9.

The nine European group winners qualify, and eight of the nine second-place teams go to playoffs.


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