Villa saves Spain's blushes

France, Italy and the Netherlands also record wins in the Euro 2012 qualifying fixtures.

    France, Italy and the Netherlands recorded victories in the qualifying fixtures [Reuters]

    David Villa has become Spain's leading goalscorer as the world champions came from behind to beat Czech Republic 2-1 and join three other heavyweights in taking charge of their Euro 2012 qualifying groups.

    France, Italy and Netherlands also extended their leads at the top with wins ranging from the laboured to the convincing but it was Spain's near hiccup that caused the biggest stir on Friday.

    The European champions were trailing to a first-half Jaroslav Plasil goal before Villa scored twice in four minutes to reach 46 goals for his country, two more than Raul, and send Spain six points clear of the second-placed Czechs in Group I.

    "Villa is a boy with a lot of poise in front of goal," Vicente del Bosque, Spain''s coach, told a news conference. "Twelve points from four matches is the ideal position but we have to keep it up."

    Spain's blushes were spared while France and Italy went some way to soothing their bruised reputations with Les Bleus beating Luxembourg 2-0 and the Azzurri sneaking a 1-0 win in Slovenia.

    The two teams who contested the 2006 World Cup final were not at their most convincing though and were given a lesson in how to stamp authority over weaker opposition by 2010 World Cup
    runners-up Netherlands who thrashed Hungary 4-0.

    While a noisy Granada stadium cheered Spain''s fight back, there were few witnesses to Serbia's resilience in a 2-1 comeback win over battling Northern Ireland in a match played behind closed doors in Belgrade.

    After miserable World Cup showings last year, France and Italy have been seeking to make amends and standing on top of Groups D and C respectively the future is looking brighter.

    France took their time to settle against a Luxembourg team ranked almost 100 places below them and despite dominating possession they had to wait until the 28th minute before defender Philippe Mexes headed home.

    They sealed the points and a four-point lead in their group 18 minutes from time when Yoann Gourcuff volleyed in after a Franck Ribery cross was deflected by a Luxembourg defender.

    Much of the pre-match talk focused on the return of World Cup rebels Ribery and Patrice Evra but the pair had a quiet game apart from being booed by 2,000 of their own fans who had travelled across the border.
    "They were subdued, just like the rest of the team," France coach Laurent Blanc told a news conference.
    Also having a quiet game were Serbia, serving a one-match crowd ban imposed because of a riot their fans caused in a qualifier in Italy last year.

    Quiet stadium 

    The 265 Northern Ireland fans allowed into the Belgrade stadium, the only supporters in an eerily quiet ground, were given something to cheer five minutes before the break when defender Gareth McAuley headed in a Chris Brunt cross.

    However, two goals in nine minutes midway through the second half by Marko Pantelic and Zoran Tosic were deserved reward for dominant Serbia who leapfrogged the visitors into third place in Group C with seven points from five games.

    Italy are the runaway leaders in that group with 13 points from five matches thanks to Brazil-born Thiago Motta''s 73rd-minute strike against second-placed Slovenia.

    The Azzurri had plenty of chances, with Giampaolo Pazzini striking the woodwork, and were glad not to have paid for failing to convert more of their opportunities as Slovenia substitute Zlatan Ljubijankic also went close.
    "This victory will help us rebuild confidence in Italian football," Italy coach Cesare Prandelli told reporters.

    Netherlands, who like Spain have made a perfect start to qualifying, marched six points clear in Group E with 15 points from five matches after their demolition of second-placed Hungary in Budapest.

    The visitors took an early lead thanks to Rafael van der Vaart's eighth-minute effort after he was set up by Wesley Sneijder before Ibrahim Afellay doubled the advantage with a powerful low drive on the stroke of halftime.

    The Dutch then added goals through Dirk Kuyt and Robin van Persie to suggest they are likely to be even less forgiving when they host the Hungarians in Amsterdam on Tuesday.

    In the day's other qualifier, Belgium sprang a surprise in Austria as Axel Witsel struck twice in a 2-0 victory that propelled his team into second place behind Germany in Group A. Euro 2012 qualifying continues on Saturday with 13 matches, including Wales against England and Germany at home to

    SOURCE: Reuters


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