Paris: Miroslav Klose and Cristiano Ronaldo stole the limelight on a busy night of World Cup qualifying fixtures on Friday that saw several European nations edge closer to a place at the finals in Brazil.
Veteran Klose set Germany on the way to a 3-0 win against neighbours Austria that keeps them firmly in control of Group C, while Ronaldo netted a hat-trick as Portugal came from behind to triumph 4-2 in Northern Ireland.
Reigning world champions Spain eased to a 2-0 win in Finland, while Italy are just one more victory away from qualifying for the finals after a 1-0 defeat of Bulgaria in Palermo, but it was not all plain sailing for the big boys, with the Netherlands having to scramble to draw 2-2 in Estonia.
Germany were far too strong for Austria in Munich, with the 35-year-old Klose setting them on their way with the 68th international goal of his career.
That saw him equal Gerd Mueller’s German record for the most goals scored for his country, before Bayern Munich pair Toni Kroos and Thomas Mueller got the other goals for the hosts on the night.
Germany are now five points clear of Sweden, who won 2-1 in the Republic of Ireland with Johan Elmander and Anders Svensson getting their goals after Robbie Keane had put the home side in front.
“We did our homework, we knew how Austria would play and we took the sting out of them,” said Germany coach Joachim Loew, whose team will qualify on Tuesday if they win in the Faroe Islands and Sweden fail to win in Kazakhstan.
Portugal are still two points clear of Russia at the top of Group F, but having played a game more, after winning an eventful game in Belfast.
In a match that featured three red cards, Northern Ireland twice led before Real Madrid man Ronaldo scored three times in 15 minutes late on to move him above the great Eusebio in his country’s list of all-time leading scorers on 43.
Russia had earlier swatted aside group whipping boys Luxembourg 4-1, with Alexander Kokorin of Dynamo Moscow scoring a brace, to keep automatic qualification in their own hands.
Spain are now three points clear at the top of Group I with just two games remaining after Jordi Alba and Alvaro Negredo struck either side of half-time in Helsinki while France, in second, saw their goal drought continue with a 0-0 draw in Georgia.
“It was a very difficult game because they were very compact and we found it difficult to find spaces,” Spain boss Vicente del Bosque admitted afterwards.
Italy’s single-goal win against Bulgaria in Sicily means they need only beat the Czech Republic on Tuesday to book their ticket to Brazil from Group B.
Behind them, the race for second and a prospective play-off berth remains open, particularly after Armenia won 2-1 in the Czech Republic.
The Netherlands saw their perfect record in Group D come to an end, however, in their 2-2 draw in Estonia.
Arjen Robben put the Dutch ahead early on, but a stunning double from Konstantin Vassiljev turned the game on its head and the Oranje needed a last-gasp Robin van Persie penalty to spare their blushes.
Meanwhile, England took control of Group H thanks to their 4-0 defeat of whipping boys Moldova that featured a brace from Manchester United’s Danny Welbeck.
England lead the section on goal difference from Montenegro, who drew 1-1 in Poland, with Ukraine a further point back in third.
Ukraine hammered hapless San Marino 9-0 and England must go to Ukraine on Tuesday without Welbeck, who is suspended.
Elsewhere, Belgium are on the brink of qualifying from Group A after a 2-0 win in Scotland coupled with Croatia’s 1-1 draw in Serbia left them five points clear at the summit.
Also in that group, Real Madrid new boy Gareth Bale was an unused substitute as Wales lost 2-1 in Macedonia.
Switzerland are still four points clear of Norway atop Group E despite a remarkable 4-4 home draw with Iceland, for whom Johann Gudmundsson scored a hat-trick, while Group G leaders Bosnia-Herzegovina lost 1-0 at home to Slovakia, allowing Greece to join them there with a 1-0 win in Liechtenstein.