LONDON: After a mixed bag of results in Saturday's qualifiers, Europe's major countries asserted their authority on Wednesday with France, England and Italy all winning away.
European champions Greece, though, served up another poor performance in a 0-0 draw against Turkey in Pireaus following their 2-1 defeat by Albania on Saturday, leaving them with one point out of six in Group Two.
But Portugal, who hosted Euro 2004 and lost in the final to Greece, maintained their excellent start to the qualifiers with a 4-0 drubbing of Estonia in Leiria – with all four goals coming in the last 15 minutes.
Neighbours Spain, starting their qualifying campaign, looked out of sorts though, only managing a 1-1 draw in Bosnia in Group Seven after being outplayed for most of the match.
Slovakia were the biggest winners of the night, beating Liechtenstein 7-0 while Romania maintained their perfect start in Group One by taking another positive step on the way to the finals in Germany in 2006 with a 5-1 win over little Andorra – their third win in three matches.
However, Holland, in the same group and playing their first competitive match under new coach Marco van Basten, served notice of their intentions with a 2-0 win over the Czech Republic in Amsterdam – with Pierre van Hooijdonk scoring both goals to avenge their 3-2 defeat to the Czechs at Euro 2004.
There was a tasty British battle in Cardiff which ended in a 2-2 draw between Wales and Northern Ireland with almost as many players sent off as goals scored.
Michael Hughes of Northern Ireland and Robbie Savage of Wales were dismissed for fighting in the ninth minute just one minute before Jeff Whitley put the Irish 1-0 up with their first goal in 10 competitive matches.
David Healy then made it 2-0 after 21 minutes but was almost immediately sent off after picking up two yellow cards for his goal celebration and a gesture to the Welsh fans.
Wales clawed back a goal through John Hartson after 32 minutes before Robert Earnshaw made it 2-2 15 minutes from the end.
France, held to a 0-0 draw by Israel in their opening Group Four match in Paris on Saturday, did not play that well but had enough guile to beat Faroe Islands 2-0 in Torshavn thanks to goals from Ludovic Giuly and Djibril Cisse, a ninth minute substitute for the injured Louis Saha.
Saha was not the only English-based Frenchman who failed to finish the match as skipper Patrick Vieira was sent off in the second half, picking up a second yellow card for diving.
It was the first time Vieira had been sent off for his country but the 10th time in his senior career after nine dismissals with Arsenal since January 1998.
England, who came in for a deluge of criticism from the English media after throwing away a 2-0 lead to draw 2-2 with Austria on Saturday, bounced back with a 2-1 win over Poland in Chorzow. Jermain Defoe scored a delightful goal to set them on their way after 37 minutes – his first for his country in his first England start.
England had pressured until then and skipper David Beckham, who had just had a free kick cleared, fed the ball through for Defoe, who turned his marker and smacked a shot past Jerzy Dudek into the far corner.
Poland should have been level at the break, though, after Sebastian Mila miscued a volley from 10m out and then had another effort charged down in a packed area.
Maciej Zurawski equalised with an unstoppable shot three minutes into the second half before England regained the lead when Arkadiusz Glowacki put through his own goal under pressure from Michael Owen after 58 minutes.
Italy also won away to make it six points out of six, after a 1-0 victory in Moldova.
Alessandro Del Piero scored the only goal after 32 minutes – his first for Italy in over a year to put them top of Group Five. – Reuters