WORLD CUP QUALIFIERS

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Powers maintain grip as 2014 looms

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Kyle McCarthy

Kyle McCarthy writes about the beautiful game for FOX Soccer, the Boston Herald and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter.

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WHERE THEY STAND

Race to Brazil heats up and we have all the updates. Review UEFA'S latest table standings here.

Spain returned to form with a 1-0 victory over France in the marquee match on a busy day of World Cup qualifying.

The all-conquering side dispelled the doubts created by a pair of draws – including an uncharacteristic 1-1 home stalemate with Finland on Friday – to wrest control of Group I away from the French in Saint-Denis.

Vicente del Bosque's side dictated the terms of this engaging affair at the Stade de France and starved the home team of any extended spells in possession. Wayward France striker Karim Benezma spurned a decent opportunity for the French in the first half to exacerbate his personal concerns, but most of the chances, much of the play and all of the points eventually came from the current World Cup and European Championship holders.

Pedro Rodriguez bundled home just before the hour to grab the deserved winner for the visitors. The Barcelona man found himself unjustly denied a spot kick in the first half after Hugo Lloris hauled him down, but he pushed Ignacio Monreal's cross over the line to halt the recent run of indifferent form.

The decisive tally allowed Spain to climb over France and establish a one-point lead at the top of the group. Barring a slip against Finland, Belarus or Georgia in the final three group matches, Spain will ensure its place in the World Cup and send France into the playoffs.

England flounders in bid to seize control of Group H

Not even an early goal from Wayne Rooney could keep England from fluffing its lines in a 1-1 draw at Montenegro.

Rooney scored after six minutes to stake the Three Lions to a precious lead in Podgorica in a battle between the top two sides in Group H. The English consolidated their early advantage with a fine first half display to place the Montenegrins under pressure to produce a second half response.

The home side produced it soon after play resumed and Roy Hodgson's side buckled under the pressure. Montenegro eventually procured a deserved equalizer through Dejan Damjanovic after 77 minutes.

England escaped the harrowing second half with a point, but the failure to emerge with a victory complicates the path to top spot with Montenegro still two points clear. A visit to Ukraine on Sept. 10 and the return match against Branko Brnovic's side at Wembley on Oct. 11 will determine whether England qualifies directly or slips into the playoffs.

Netherlands maintains unbeaten run as qualifying picture sharpens

The Dutch all but assured a trip to Brazil by prolonging a perfect run through Group D with a 4-0 thrashing of Romania in Amsterdam. Robin van Persie struck twice in ten minutes to send Louis van Gaal's side seven points clear of second-place Hungary with four matches to play.

Fellow powers Germany and Italy also maintained their perches at the top of their groups. Marco Reus scored twice as the Germans easily dispatched Kazakhstan 4-1 to push eight points clear of playoff contenders Austria, Republic of Ireland and Sweden in Group C. Italy eased to a 2-0 victory in Malta courtesy of a pair of Marco Balotelli goals to push three points clear of Bulgaria at the top of Group B with a game in hand.

Belgium and Croatia maintained their tussle for supremacy in Group A with a pair of victories. Eden Hazard struck after halftime to hand the Belgians a narrow 1-0 home win over Macedonia, while Dejan Lovren and Eduardo spared Croatia a potential crippling defeat in Wales. The two contenders are currently deadlocked on 16 points with the Oct. 11 meeting in Split looming as the potentially decisive affair.

Israel and Portugal kept up their chase of Group F leaders Russia by collecting all three points against lesser sides in the group. Lior Refaelov and Eden Ben Basat provided the margin for victory for Israel on its trip to Northern Ireland. Portugal stayed level with the Israelis by securing the same result against 10-man Azerbaijan in Baku. Both sides will hope the Russians slip up dramatically – Fabio Capello's side is one point clear with two games in hand – to allow them a chance to snatch the top spot.

Argentina settles for point in Bolivia

Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf

RIGHT HOOK?

Did Uruguay striker Luis Suarez punch Chile defender Gonzalo Jara? You decide.

CONMEBOL leaders Argentina (24 pts.) suffered a modest setback in a 1-1 draw in Bolivia. Marcelo Moreno tallied after 25 minutes to continue Bolivia's impressive home form in the altitude of La Paz, but Ever Banega pegged the minnows back on the stroke of halftime to take a share of the spoils.

Ecuador relied on two goals from Jefferson Montero to brush aside struggling Paraguay with a 4-1 win in Quito. The Ecuadorians (20 pts.) now sit in second spot after Venezuela (15 pts.) leaned on a Salomón Rondón goal to secure a critical 1-0 home victory over Colombia (19 pts.). La Vinotinto are equal on points with fourth-placed Chile – 2-0 winners over sixth-placed Uruguay (13 pts.) in Santiago – as they pursue their first World Cup berth.

Aside from Mexico, home sides hold serve in the Hexagonal

Costa Rica and Panama climbed into the top three by claiming all three points on home soil. Panama now tops the CONCACAF table on five points after Luis Tejada and Blás Pérez scored to seal a 2-0 home victory over Honduras. Costa Rica joined the Hondurans and the United States (after a 0-0 draw in Mexico City) on four points after a 2-0 victory over Jamaica in San José. Mexico (three points) and Jamaica (two points) would miss out on one of the three guaranteed berths or a playoff date with OFC winners New Zealand if play ended today.

Egypt maintains its World Cup push

 Veteran playmaker Mohamed Aboutrika converted from the spot two minutes from time to give Egypt a 2-1 victory over Zimbabwe in Alexandria. Bob Bradley's side can guarantee a place in the third round – and a home and home playoff for a first World Cup berth since 1990 – with a victory at Zimbabwe and a Guinea draw or loss against Mozambique on June 7. In the other match of the day, Algeria joined Mali atop Group H with a 3-1 home victory over Benin.

SOUTH OF THE BORDER

Review the best images from USA's battle against rivals Mexico.

Japan fails to lock up World Cup berth

Jordan handed Group B leaders Japan a surprising setback with a 2-1 victory in Amman. Khalil Bani Attiah and Ahmad Hayel compiled a two-goal lead before the hour. Shinji Kagawa pulled a goal back after 69 minutes, but the Japanese failed to produce an equalizer to peg back a side easily discarded 6-0 in Saitama last June. The shock defeat did not damage Japan's prospects much with Jordan now six points off the pace in second spot. Australia and Oman are a point further back after Brett Holman snatched a 2-2 draw for the Aussies in Sydney.

Uzbekistan stayed on course for its first World Cup berth with a 1-0 victory over bottom side Lebanon in Tashkent. Server Djeparov separated the sides in the second half to keep the Uzbeks atop of Group A in the wake of South Korea's last gasp 2-1 victory over Iran in Seoul. Son Heung-Min pounced in the sixth minute of second half stoppage time to push the South Koreans three points clear of the Iranians in the race for one of the two guaranteed World Cup places out of this group.

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