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.
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 Portugals 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 Portugals 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.
Klose equals record
There were individual plaudits in Germanys 3-0 win over Austria in Group C as Miroslav Klose opened the scoring in the 34th minute to equal Gerd Muellers record of 68 goals for the country. Group E leaders Switzerland 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 saw a first-minute lead secured by Arjen Robben evaporate against Estonia where they stood seconds away from a 2-1 defeat before Robin Van Persie converted a last minute penalty.
Spirits were much higher at Wembley where England outclassed Moldova after two goals from Danny Welbeck and one each from captain Steven Gerrard and Rickie Lambert propelled Roy Hodgsons side to the top of Group H on goal difference. Montenegro,who also have 15 points but have played one game more than England,could only manage a 1-1 draw in Poland. Third-placed Ukraine stayed in the chase with a 9-0 thumping of San Marino,who have conceded 38 goals in seven qualifiers,and have 14 points ahead of Tuesdays home match with England.
Spain keep winning
World champions Spain were 2-0 winners in Finland as they tightened their grip on top spot in Group I,with their cause helped by second-placed Frances 0-0 draw in Georgia. Goals from Jordi Alba and Alvaro Negredo either side of halftime secured a comfortable win. Group A pacesetters Belgium stretched their lead at the top with a 2-0 win away to Scotland with goals from Steven Dafour and Kevin Mirallas as second and third-placed Balkan rivals Serbia and Croatia drew 1-1 in Belgrade. Group B leaders Italy moved to within one win of qualifying after a 1-0 win against second-placed Bulgaria.
Best of Express