Spain and Germany struggle to win
Holders Spain stretched their winning run in qualifiers to 23 as they began the journey to the 2014 World Cup with a 1-0 victory in Georgia on Tuesday but along with Germany and Italy they struggled to take the points.
The world champions, who last failed to win a qualifying match five years ago in Iceland, needed an 86th minute Roberto Soldado strike to kick-start their Group I campaign in Tbilisi.
Germany, who won all 10 of their qualification matches for Euro this year, made it two from two in Group C but had to battle all the way for a 2-1 victory against neighbours Austria in Vienna.
Italy, beaten by Spain in the European Championship final, were unimpressive in a 2-0 win at home to lowly-ranked Malta.
England had to settle for a point against Ukraine in Group H, Frank Lampard’s late penalty salvaging a 1-1 draw at Wembley that put Roy Hodgson’s side level on four points with Poland and Montenegro.
England had skipper Steven Gerrard sent off for a second booking late in the game.
France, who will battle for top spot in Group I with Spain, beat Belarus 3-1 in Paris to claim six points from two games.
While some fancied sides laboured, the best performances on a busy night came from Russia, who won 4-0 in Israel to top Group F, the Netherlands, 4-1 winners in Hungary in Group D, and Serbia who beat Wales 6-1 in their Group A clash in Novi Sad.
Bosnia lead the scoring charts though after crushing Latvia 4-1 having put eight past Liechtenstein on Friday. Greece joined Bosnia on six points in Group G after beating Lithuania 2-0.
Spain encountered an ultra-defensive Georgia side and were enduring a night of frustration until Soldado, given a rare start in place of the likes of Fernando Torres and David Villa, converted a cross from substitute Cesc Fabregas.
It was a little hard on Georgia who defended tenaciously and also had to contend with the loss of their first choice keeper Giorgi Loria through injury with 20 minutes remaining.
“They closed ranks from the start and we tried everything but we were missing a little attacking dynamism,” coach Vicente Del Bosque told Spanish TV.
“These are three exceptionally important points though because if we had drawn today it would have been a significant setback,” he added.
Germany survived a torrid first half against Austria before Marco Reus and Mesut Ozil scored either side of halftime to give them a 2-1 win and an eighth successive victory over their neighbours who have not qualified for the World Cup since 1998.
Zlatko Junuzovic pulled one back for Austria and Marko Arnautovic missed a great chance for the hosts late on.
“We had some good spells when we controlled the game, but not for the whole match,” Germany coach Joachim Loew said. “We had fewer chances and Austria should have equalised at the end.”
An early goal from Mattia Destro and a late own goal from Malta’s Andrew Cohen earned Italy their first win of the qualifying campaign after Friday’s draw with Bulgaria.
“Right now the team isn’t playing amazingly well, we know that historically September is a particularly difficult month,” Cesare Prandelli told reporters.
Italy and Bulgaria have four points each after the latter beat Armenia 1-0 in a game that saw three red cards.
A fracas resulted in Bulgaria’s Svetoslav Dyakov being shown a second yellow card while Armenia substitute Marcos Pinheiro was also sent off and was later joined by Gevorg Gazaryan who got a red card for shoving a ball boy.
England’s Gerrard was also in trouble, although there was relief for his side after they had fallen behind to a stunning first-half strike by Echan Konoplianka.
Lampard kept his cool to equalise from the spot after Evhen Khacheridi had handled for his third goal of the campaign.
Portugal made it two wins from two in Group F with a 3-0 victory over Azerbaijan while Switzerland are the early pacesetters in Group E thanks to a 2-0 victory over Albania.
Belgium, who are strongly fancied to qualify for the finals in Brazil, came back from a goal down at home to Croatia in Group A to earn a 1-1 draw.