Cristiano Ronaldo rescued Portugal with a speedy hat-trick to avoid a slip-up in Northern Ireland,while Netherlands dropped their first points as Spain and Germany took easier steps towards World Cup qualification.
England moved level on points at the top of Group H with Montenegro after marching to a 4-0 home win over Moldova that came as their rivals were held 1-1 in Poland.
Italy and Belgium were among the group pacesetters to take full points,while Group E leaders Switzerland could only draw 4-4 with Iceland and Group G table-toppers Bosnia surprisingly lost 1-0 at home to Slovakia.
In Belfast,Portugal were in serious danger of being knocked off the top of Group F,after second-placed Russia had earlier thumped Luxembourg 4-1,as they found themselves trailing 2-1 to Northern Ireland.
Their hosts had previous form for upsets having stunned Russia 1-0 last month and it looked like they were heading for another when Portugal’s Helder Postiga was shown a straight red card for a headbutt on Gareth McAuley just before halftime.
Northern Ireland,already out of qualifying contention,made the man advantage count early in the second half when Jamie Ward scored after a corner but Portugal’s fortunes turned when Kevin Brunt was shown a second yellow to make it 10 against 10.
Then followed 15 minutes of trademark Ronaldo brilliance as he headed in two goals and scored another from a free kick to turn the match around and put Portugal on 17 points from eight games with Russia on 15 having played one game fewer.
There were more individual plaudits in Germany’s 3-0 win over Austria in Group C as forward Miroslav Klose opened the scoring in the 34th minute to equal Gerd Mueller’s record of 68 goals for the country.
The clean sheet banished concerns over recent German defensive frailties as they stayed in control of the group on 19 points from seven matches,five ahead of Sweden who beat Ireland 2-1. Austria dropped to third on 11,level with the Irish.
“We did our homework,we defended well,we played with the right aggression and intensity,” Germany coach Joachim Loew told ZDF television.
The same could not be said of Group E leaders Switzerland,who let slip a 4-1 lead to draw 4-4 with Iceland,allowing second-placed Norway to close the gap on them to four points after they beat Cyprus 2-0.
Netherlands also had defensive questions to answer after they saw a first-minute lead secured by Arjen Robben evaporate in Tallinn where they stood seconds away from an embarrassing 2-1 defeat after a Konstantin Vassiljev double for the hosts.
The Dutch,who until this game had a perfect record of six wins from six matches,snatched a point in the third minute of stoppage time when Raio Piiroja was sent off and a penalty was awarded which Robin van Persie converted.
“We know we are better so it makes it a frustrating evening,” Robben told Dutch NOS radio with his side on 19 points from seven games – continued…