Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Euro qualifiers taking shape with final round of fixtures remaining

Germany, Belgium and Switzerland qualified for the World Cup in Brazil, while Spain, England and Russia also won over the weekend to keep their fate in their own hands heading into the European zone's final round of group games.

Next year's tournament is also within sight for Bosnia-Herzegovina, who have never played in a World Cup, but Cristiano Ronaldo looks destined for the play-offs with Portugal after a night when the qualifying picture in the nine groups became clearer.

The Netherlands had already secured their passage to the World Cup before their 8-1 demolition of Hungary, featuring a hat-trick by Robin van Persie that put the Manchester United striker top of his country's all-time scoring chart with 41 goals.

Germany eased past Ireland 3-0 through goals by Sami Khedira, Andre Schuerrle and Mesut Ozil to guarantee first place in Group C and reach football's biggest tournament for the 16th straight time.

"We've won eight from nine games and we should have won the ninth," Germany coach Joachim Loew said.

For Belgium, though, it will be a first World Cup in 12 years after the country's so-called golden generation topped Group A with a 2-1 win in Croatia, with striker Romelu Lukaku scoring twice.

"It's a party in Belgium. What more can you ask?" said coach Marc Wilmots, whose team played in front of Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo in Zagreb.

Switzerland prompted a jubilant tweet from tennis great Roger Federer after beating Albania 2-1 to win Group E with a game to spare and advance to the World Cup for a third successive occasion.

"Switzerland made it to the World Cup, how happy am I on a scale 1-10?" Federer wrote. "About a 25."

Spain beat Belarus 2-1 through second-half goals by Xavi Hernandez and Alvaro Negredo and require just one point from a home match against Georgia to guarantee the world champions will defend their title next summer.

England stayed top of Group H, a point clear of Ukraine, after an impressive second-half display sealed a 4-1 win over Montenegro, with in-form strikers Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge and debutant Andros Townsend among the scorers. The English now just need a victory over Poland on Wednesday to go through automatically but a draw will let in Ukraine, who beat the Poles 1-0 and have an easy match against San Marino left.

"It is only a half-done job but it is nice to know whatever happens we will not be out," said England coach Roy Hodgson, whose team can't finish lower than second place.

The scenario is easier for Russia after their 4-0 win in Luxembourg, which left Fabio Capello's team three points ahead of Portugal and needing only a draw in Azerbaijan to guarantee first place.

Portugal conceded a goal to Eden Ben Basat with five minutes left to draw 1-1 at home to Israel and virtually ensure they will be in next month's two-legged play-offs, which feature the top eight runners-up.

Helped by two goals by Edin Dzeko, Group G leaders Bosnia-Herzegovina beat Liechtenstein 4-1 at home and can qualify automatically for their first major tournament with a win at Lithuania on Wednesday. Greece defeated Slovakia 1-0 and are level on points with the Bosnians, but have a vastly inferior goal difference.

Elsewhere, Sweden joined Croatia in the playoffs after securing second place in Germany's group with a 2-1 home victory over Austria, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic grabbing a late winner. They are the only two countries definitely in the two-legged play-offs, which will played on November 15 and 19.

Italy, who qualified along with the Dutch last month, equalised in injury time to draw 2-2 at Denmark and leave Bulgaria second on goal difference in Group B despite a 2-1 loss in Armenia. Iceland stayed second behind Switzerland after overcoming Cyprus 2-0, while Turkey and Romania won away games to stay tied on points behind the Netherlands with one match remaining.

The Turks have the edge on goal difference but finish off against the Dutch, who showed they are in no mood to relax by ripping apart Hungary in Amsterdam.

Van Persie scored twice before halftime and seven minutes into the second half to go one goal ahead of Patrick Kluivert in the all-time list.

"Records are made to be broken ... I'm happy for him," said Kluivert, who is now one of Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal's assistants.

Thirteen of the 32 spots at the World Cup are now set. The United States, Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Iran, Japan and South Korea had also already qualified before yesterday and Brazil get an automatic berth as host. AP

- Herald on Sunday

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