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Spain win in Paris to leapfrog France

updated 6:57 PM EDT, Wed March 27, 2013
Pedro rushes out of the goalmouth after converting Nacho Monreal's cross to give the world champions a key win in Paris.
Pedro rushes out of the goalmouth after converting Nacho Monreal's cross to give the world champions a key win in Paris.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • World champions Spain beat France 1-0 in Paris to regain Group I control
  • England are held 1-1 in Montenegro as the Balkan nation maintain grip on Group H
  • Belgium and Croatia both win to maintain thrilling Group A battle

(CNN) -- Defending champions Spain regained control of their qualifying destiny for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil when beating France 1-0 in a crucial encounter in Paris.

A home win in the Stade de France, where France lifted the 1998 World Cup, would have given coach Didier Deschamps' side a five-point margin with just three qualifiers remaining.

Such a scenario would have potentially banished Spain to the ignominy of having to qualify for Brazil via the playoffs but now it is their vanquished foes who appear set for such a fate.

In a tight encounter, both sides wasted fine openings -- with Franck Ribery at fault for the hosts while Xavi was unusually wayward for the visitors -- before Pedro bundled home after 58 minutes.

The victory takes Spain to 11 points in Group I, one more than France, with the other teams in the group -- Georgia, Belarus and Finland -- seemingly out of contention.

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"I am happy because the three points put us in a good situation, but also because we stuck to our style," said Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque. "We could have won by a greater margin in the end."

Only one team automatically qualifies for the World Cup from each of the nine European groups, with the eight best runners-up going into a playoff in November.

The defeat was the first in a competitive match as French coach for Deschamps, who saw young Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba sent off for two yellow cards.

Like the French, Roy Hodgson's England also had to settle for second place on an evening when plans for group supremacy were ripped up.

The English had been looking to inflict a first Group H defeat for leaders Montenegro, a country of little more than 600,000 inhabitants, but the Balkan nation retained their two-point lead over the visitors when drawing 1-1.

Wayne Rooney, who was sent off on his last visit to Podgorica, thought he had atoned when heading the 1966 world champions into an early lead only for the hosts to dominate the second half and deservedly equalize through Dejan Damjanovic.

"We're still confident we can finish top of the group," said England captain Steven Gerrard, whose side could be five points adrift before they host Moldova in September.

Group rivals Poland and Ukraine, who co-hosted the 2012 European Championship, also won, beating San Marino and Moldova respectively, to close the gap on the Group H leaders.

Elsewhere, Israel -- the only country to have played World Cup qualifiers in five different continents -- boosted their chances of returning to the finals for the first time since 1970 when winning 2-0 in Northern Ireland.

The victory takes them to 11 points, level with a Portuguese side who beat 10-man Azerbaijan 2-0 in Baku, as both sides battle for second place behind Fabio Capello's Russia, who lead the group with 12 points having played two games less.

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Russia, who drew 1-1 with Brazil in a friendly on Monday night in London, are one of only two European sides to boast 100% records, with Holland maintaining theirs on Tuesday as the Group D leaders thumped Romania 4-0 at home to earn their sixth straight win.

Group rivals Turkey, who finished third at the 2002 World Cup, endured a disappointing night as they were held to a 1-1 draw at home by a resurgent Hungary, with a team that reached the 1954 World Cup final continuing to suggest signs of a long-overdue revival.

Having gifted the visitors their equalizer, the Turks trail the Dutch by 11 points with only four qualifiers left.

Between them, Germany and Italy have won the World Cup on seven occasions -- and both maintained control of their groups with comfortable victories on Tuesday.

Mario Balotelli continued his recent hot streak by scoring both goals in a 2-0 win in Malta, to keep Italy -- who have a game in hand -- three points clear of second-placed Group B side Bulgaria.

The Germans -- who lead Group C by eight points -- defeated Kazakhstan 4-1 but the visitors had a moment to savour when Genrikh Shmidtgal found the back of the net after 46 minutes, only the Kazakhs' second goal from their six qualifiers.

One of the most intriguing battles for automatic World Cup qualification comes in Group A where both Belgium and Croatia are tied on 16 points apiece, after their first six matches.

Heralding a special group of players including Eden Hazard, Christian Benteke, Moussa Dembele and Vincent Kompany among others, the Belgians beat Macedonia 1-0 at home as Chelsea midfielder Hazard settled the contest shortly after the hour.

The goal looked as if it could be decisive as Croatia trailed to an early Gareth Bale penalty in Wales with thirteen minutes left, before goals from Dejan Lovren and Eduardo turned the Swansea clash around and ensured Group A is likely to go all the way to the wire.

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