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Spain beats France to revive World Cup campaign

Wednesday - 3/27/2013, 1:06am  ET

Montenegro's players celebrate during their World Cup group H qualifying soccer match between England and Montenegro, at City Stadium in Podgorica, Montenegro, Tuesday, March 26, 2013. (AP Photo/Risto Bozovic)

AP Sports Writer

LONDON (AP) -- World Cup champion Spain put its title defense back on track Tuesday night by beating France to seize control of its qualifying group, while Germany and the Netherlands claimed big victories to push them closer to the finals in Brazil.

Pedro Rodriguez scored the goal that secured a 1-0 victory for Spain in Paris, lifting the reigning champions out of a slump following back-to-back draws. France, which had Paul Pogba sent off when already trailing, fell a point behind Spain in Group I.

"They are three welcome points, and this changes our group position for the better," Spain coach Vicente del Bosque said.

Germany surged eight points ahead in Group C by beating Kazakhstan 4-1, while the Netherlands maintained its perfect run in qualifying with a 4-0 rout of Romania. The Dutch now lead Group D by seven points. Italy remained unbeaten, with Mario Balotelli's double giving the Italians a 2-0 victory in Malta and a three-point lead over Bulgaria in Group B.

But England stumbled again, drawing 1-1 at Group H leader Montenegro to remain two points back. And in Asia, Japan's hopes of becoming the first team other than host Brazil to qualify for the 2014 World Cup were thwarted when Amer Sabah stopped a late penalty attempt from Yasuhito Endo to protect Jordan's 2-1 victory.

"We had a mission," Jordan coach Adnan Hamad said, "and we succeeded."

Egypt moved a step closer to its first World Cup in 20 years with a 2-1 victory over Zimbabwe. It was the first time fans had been allowed into the stadium for an Egyptian home game in more than a year.

The nine group winners in Europe qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil while the top eight runners-up go to playoffs that will determine the final four spots.

Spain had dropped two points behind France after last Friday's draw with Finland, an unfamiliar spot for the team that has won the last two European titles in addition to the 2010 World Cup. But the Spanish are back in control after Pedro settled a fiercely contested match in Paris in the 58th minute, left unmarked to meet Ignacio Monreal's cross from the left.

French hopes of a comeback were thwarted when Pogba picked up a second yellow card in the 78th for a late challenge on Xavi Hernandez.

"There are still three games left so there is plenty of time left to drop points, for both sides," del Bosque said. "This isn't over, although it's true France missed a chance to pull away."

That's exactly what Germany managed to do, getting some help when second-place Austria was held to a 2-2 tie at Ireland.

Marco Reus marked his return from suspension by scoring the opener from 20 yards in the 23rd, and rounded off the victory with another goal in the 90th. Mario Goetze and lkay Guendogan also scored for Germany, while Heinrich Schmidtgal took advantage of an error by German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer early in the second half for Kazakhstan's only goal.

In Amsterdam, the Netherlands cruised to a sixth straight qualifying win.

Robin van Persie set up Rafael van der Vaart's opening goal in the 12th against Romania, then scored twice himself in the second half. The Manchester United striker scored on a looping header and then from the penalty spot after Jeremain Lens was brought down by Florin Gardos. Lens rounded off the rout by tapping home in the 90th.

Like Van Persie, Balotelli was also on target twice for Italy, with one also coming from the spot. The AC Milan striker has eight goals in 19 appearances for Italy.

Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon marked his 126th appearance for Italy by saving a penalty from Malta captain Michael Mifsud in the 16th.

"It definitely wasn't one of our best matches,' Italy midfielder Riccardo Montolivo said. 'But we have a star up front (Balotelli) and he decided the match."

England might have to settle for a place in the playoffs after its third draw so far in qualifying. Poland is third with eight points, four behind England.

The night had started well in Montenegro when Wayne Rooney was left unmarked to head in Steven Gerrard's corner in the sixth. But England failed to make the most of its dominance throughout the rest of the first half and Dejan Damjanovic equalized in the 76th-minute goalmouth scramble after an initial header was blocked by goalkeeper Joe Hart.

"I don't think this is a particularly bad result because Montenegro is a difficult team to beat," England coach Roy Hodgson said. "Montenegro and Poland will have to come to us and we think it is still in our hands and we intend to make sure by winning these matches."

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