The good ship World Cup is almost ready to set sail for South Africa and the penultimate round of qualifiers ensured eight more countries secured their berth for 2010. Here's how they got there starting off with our first update from
Reigning champions Italy confirmed they'll be defending their title next year, but only thanks to a last-minute equaliser by Alberto Gilardino in Dublin. Ireland almost took all three points against the Italians when Middlesbrough's Sean St Ledger put his side 2-1 up with three minutes to go, but the Juventus winger slotted the ball home in the 90th minute to see his side go through to the Finals automatically.
All is not lost for Ireland, however. With a little assistance from Cyprus who amazingly beat Bulgaria 4-1 (Dimitar Berbatov getting the goal for his team), Giovanni Trapattoni's men are now assured of a play-off place, if not a place in the Finals.
Germany, hosts last time around, showed they hadn't forgotten how to qualify the hard way when they beat Russia 1-0 in Moscow. Aiming to protect their record of never having been beaten in a World Cup qualifier away from home, the Germans were matched stride for stride by the Russians - the only other realistic qualifier from Group 4. In the end, a 35th minute goal from Miroslav Klose proved enough to send the Germans through and the Russians into the play-offs.
In Group 1, a goal from Jakob Poulsen eleven minutes from time gave Denmark a 1-0 win over Sweden and assured the Danes of a place at World Cup 2010. Sweden's defeat means they slip to third place in the group after Portugal moved up to second on the back of a 3-0 win over Hungary. Cristiano Ronaldo picked up an ankle injury in the match and looks set to miss their vital last match against Malta which they'll need to win to confirm a place in the play-offs.
Serbia are the other surprise qualifier from Europe. They're confirmed as Group 7 champions after a 5-0 thumping of Romania while France took their place in the play-offs by beating the Faroe Islands by the same scoreline. Andre-Pierre Gignac of Toulouse scored two of the goals, the others coming courtesy of Karim Benzema, William Gallas and Nicolas Anelka.
Elsewhere, Slovenia put Slovakia's party celebrations on hold in Group 3 by beating the leaders 2-0. With the Czech Republic doing likewise against Poland, it means Slovakia are assured of a play-off spot at the very least while the Czechs must beat Northern Ireland in their last match and hope Slovenia lose to San Marino if they're to go through. 'Unlikely' doesn't even come close.
Switzerland and Greece maintained positions one and two in Group 2 having won their respective games at the weekend. The Swiss cruised to a 3-0 victory over Luxembourg and the Greeks smashed Latvia 5-2 (four of their goals coming from Bayer Leverkusen striker Theofanis Gekas). Israel moved up to third in the group after beating Moldova 3-1, which effectively snuffs out any chance the Latvians have of qualifying in realistic terms.
All of that means Switzerland will get at least a play-off place although a draw against Israel in their last match will secure automatic qualification. If the Swiss lose and Greece beat Luxembourg, the Greeks will take top spot instead. We could go on talking about the numerous permutations, but needless to say a defeat for Israel will see their chances of qualifying end right there and then.
The remaining news from Saturday's action concerns teams aiming for play-off places. Ukraine's 1-0 defeat over England in Group 6 puts them in the best position for securing second spot with only a win against Andorra on Wednesday needed to stop Croatia getting it instead. In Group 5, however, Turkey lost the chance to get a play-off place after a 2-0 defeat away to Belgium. Second place instead goes to Bosnia-Herzegovina who beat Estonia 2-0 in Tallinn.
Full results and tables available here. More from the weekend's World Cup qualifiers coming soon...