Former European champions Greece took a big step towards the Euro 2012 finals when they ground out a 1-0 win over Israel in Tel Aviv on Friday to dent their hosts qualifying hopes.
The match was the first of 23 qualifiers to be played around the continent as the preliminary tournament for next year’s finals in Poland and Ukraine resumed after the summer break.
Greece, surprise winners of Euro 2004 in Portugal, made it five wins out of seven Group F matches and opened a four point lead over the third-placed Israelis, with second-placed Croatia playing in Malta later.
Sotiris Ninis scored the only goal after an hour to effectively leave the group as a two-horse race between Greece, who have 17 points from their seven matches, and Croatia, who went to Malta seeking to add to their 13 points.
Israel, who will have played a game more than Greece and Croatia by the end of the night, remain third on 13 points.
Russia kept the pressure on Slovakia and Ireland, the other front-runners in Group B, with a 1-0 win over Macedonia in Moscow with Igor Semshov scoring what proved to be the winner four minutes before halftime.
Lowly Macedonia suffered more woe after the final whistle when Goran Pandev was sent off meaning he will miss Tuesday’s match against Andorra, who lost 3-0 at home to Armenia.
Ireland and Slovakia, who started the day on 13 points like Russia, were meeting in Dublin in an 1845 GMT kick off.
Belgium, eyeing a runners-up place in Group A behind virtually-assured group winners Germany, suffered a blow to their chances of qualifying when they conceded an 86th minute equaliser in a 1-1 draw away to Azerbaijan.
Belgium led through a 55th minute Timmy Simons penalty after Eden Hazard was fouled but the dropped points opened the way for Turkey to leapfrog them into second place after a last-gasp goal in a 2-1 win over visiting Kazakhstan.
Arda Turan scored in the seventh minute of added time to secure the points after Burak Yilmaz put the Turks ahead in the first half before Ulan Konysbayev equalised early in the second.
In Helsinki, Finland striker Mikael Forssell, without a club since leaving Hanover 96 at the end of last season, showcased his enduring talent by scoring a penalty and creating another goal as his side beat Moldova 4-1 in a Group E match.
Kasper Hamalainen scored twice as the Finns won easily although they have no chance of qualifying for the finals.