Star-studded Portugal kept their World Cup hopes alive today by booking a back-door play-off place while unheralded Switzerland and Slovakia completed the nine automatic European qualifiers.
Portugal, without injured Cristiano Ronaldo, defeated Malta 4-0 in Guimaraes with Nani, Simao, Miguel and Edinho making sure of second spot behind Group One winners Denmark, but ahead of Sweden, who missed out on qualification despite beating Albania 4-1.
While Portugal, who were 2006 World Cup semi-finalists, can look forward to a two-legged play-off, Sweden and their 69 million-euro Barcelona striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic will watch next summer’s South African showpiece from home.
Portugal had endured a terrible start to their campaign, winning just two of their first seven games and at one stage registering three back-to-back goalless draws.
But Sweden’s 1-0 defeat to Denmark on Saturday allowed them to move into second place, and the win over Malta means they join seven other sides in the draw for the two-legged European play-offs, which take place in November.
In South America, Diego Maradona breathed a sigh of relief as his struggling team beat Uruguay 0-1 to qualify.
Slovakia qualified for their first World Cup finals after a 1-0 win against Poland secured their place as Group Three winners.
An own-goal from Polish defender Seweryn Gancarczyk after just three minutes inside a virtually deserted stadium in the southern Poland town of Chorzow set Slovakia on the way to their first major finals since the country’s split with Czechoslovakia in 1993.
Slovenia saw off San Marino 3-0 to make sure of a play-off spot.
Switzerland made their German coach Ottmar Hitzfeld’s dream come true as a tense 0-0 draw against Israel in Basel made sure of top spot in Group Two.
The Swiss clinched the group with 21 points, with Greece, who beat Luxembourg 2-1, finishing one point behind and securing a play-off spot.
“It’s another success for me and a dream being fulfilled, it’s a present that Switzerland has given me,” Hitzfeld said.
England, who had already wrapped up Group Six, recovered from their 1-0 defeat in Ukraine to beat Belarus 3-0 at Wembley with Peter Crouch (2) and Shaun Wright-Phillips grabbing the goals.
Crouch has now scored 16 times in 17 starts for the national team.
Ukraine booked a play-off place with a 6-0 drubbing of Andorra, a result which meant Croatia were eliminated despite beating Kazakhstan 2-1 in Astana.
Alexei Mikhailichenko’s Ukraine finished on 21 points, one ahead of Croatia.
European champions Spain, who will be one of the favourites in South Africa, finished their Group Five campaign with a 100-percent record after a 5-2 win against Bosnia-Herzegovina, who were already assured of the runners-up spot.
Spain, without Xavi, Fernando Torres, David Villa, Carles Puyol and Cesc Fabregas, joined Group Nine winners Holland as the only team with a perfect record in Europe.
First half goals from Gerard Pique and David Silva, a second-half brace from Alvaro Negredo, on his first start, and a late strike by Juan Mata ensured home Spain’s 10th win.
Edin Dzeko and Zvjezdan Misimovic replied in injury-time for the home side.
Elsewhere, world champions Italy needed a late hat-trick by Alberto Gilardino to secure a 3-2 win over Cyprus who had led 2-0 at one stage.
Italy had already secured top spot in Group Eight, but their fans jeered their team’s efforts in Parma.
“Some of those fans forgot this team are world champions,” said Italy coach Marcello Lippi.
“What angers me is the lack of respect for these incredible players who play with great heart and who despite the problems went on to win.”
Germany, Group Four winners, were also well below-par needing a last-minute scrambled goal from Lukas Podolski to salvage a 1-1 draw against Finland in Hamburg.