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Champions Spain start 2014 World Cup quest with narrow win

updated 4:54 AM EDT, Wed September 12, 2012
Spain celebrate with Roberto Soldado after the striker silences a packed stadium in Tbilisi with his late winner
Spain celebrate with Roberto Soldado after the striker silences a packed stadium in Tbilisi with his late winner
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Spain win 1-0 in Georgia thanks to 86th minute strike from Roberto Soldado
  • England are held 1-1 at Wembley by Ukraine as captain Steven Gerrard is sent off
  • France, Portugal and Italy make hard work of beating Belarus, Azerbaijan and Malta

(CNN) -- Champions Spain began the defense of their World Cup title with a hard fought 1-0 win against Georgia in Tbilisi on Tuesday.

Playing their first qualifier in Group I, the 2010 World Cup winners had to wait until the 86th minute before striker Roberto Soldado finally broke down a stubborn Georgian side.

For much of the game, the home team, who hit the post early in the second half, defended with 10 men behind the ball against a side who retained their European Championship crown in July.

Goalkeeper Giorgi Loria had proved an immovable barrier but after he was replaced due to injury late in the second half, substitute Cesc Fabregas teed up Soldado to sweep home.

The win maintains Spain's two-year unbeaten run in competitive matches, which stretches back to their 1-0 loss against Switzerland in their opening game at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

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Spain are second in their group, three points behind 1998 champions France, who won their second match in four days when overcoming a second-half wobble to beat Belarus 3-1 in Paris, with goals from Etienne Capoue, Christophe Jallet and Franck Ribery.

In London, England suffered a scare when trailing Ukraine for long periods before Frank Lampard scored a late penalty to earn a 1-1 draw, after Yevgen Konoplianka had curled home in the first half.

England captain Steven Gerrard was sent off for a second yellow card shortly after Lampard's penalty, as a first competitive game at Wembley for coach Roy Hodgson lacked the feelgood factor that has accompanied local sportsmen in London in recent weeks during the Olympics and Paralympics.

Hodgson's predecessor Fabio Capello enjoyed a more fruitful evening as his new Russian side won 4-0 in Israel while their next opponents -- and main Group F rivals Portugal -- needed late goals from Helder Postiga and Bruno Alves to add gloss to a labored 3-0 win over Azerbaijan in Braga.

Italy, the runners-up at this year's Euro 2012, were another leading nation who struggled to overcome less fancied opponents, as a stoppage-time own goal helped the four time world champions to a 2-0 win over islanders Malta.

One of Tuesday's more intriguing games took place in Lucerne, where hosts Switzerland beat Albania 2-0 to go top of Group E.

Build-up to the game had been dominated by the issue of players with Kosovan heritage, with six starting the match for Albania and three more for Switzerland -- midfield trio Granit Xhaka, Valon Behrami and Swiss star Xherdan Shaqiri.

Born to ethnic Albanian parents from Kosovo, Shaqiri was constantly booed by the sizable away support until the Bayern Munich player silenced them when opening the scoring after 23 minutes.

Elsewhere, big guns Germany maintained their 100% start in Group C when beating Austria 2-1 in Vienna, while Serbia stunned Group A rivals Wales with a 6-1 win in Novi Sad but the night's biggest winners were Montenegro, who won 6-0 in San Marino.

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