Greece go out as Spain forced into play-offs

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The Independent Online

So Greece's European Championship success, if not a fluke, for in many ways they deserved it, was a blip.

It is impossible to draw any other conclusion after they failed last night to reach next summer's World Cup finals. The Greeks, despite defeating Georgia 1-0 in Athens, finished fourth in Group Two after Turkey edged them out along with Denmark, 2-0 winners in Kazakhstan.

The Turks, semi-finalists in the 2002 finals, gained a narrow victory in Albania through Tuemer Metin's scrappy second-half goal. That enabled them to hold on to second place, and a play-off slot, in a group that had already been convincingly won by Ukraine. Greece are the first European Championship holders to miss the World Cup since Denmark failed to reach the US in 1994.

Also absent are Russia and what had appeared a talented Romanian generation. Russian club football may be buoyant but the national team failed to gain the win required in Bratislava, with their Slovakian opponents making the play-offs.

Romania's hopes departed when the Czech Republic leapfrogged them to secure a play-off place with a comfortable victory in Helsinki. Tomas Rosicky, whose penalty failure against the Netherlands on Saturday contributed to the Dutch topping Group One, made the first and scored the second in a 3-0 win.

Also in the play-offs are the perennial underachievers Spain. They needed to score at least four goals in San Marino to have a chance of snatching first place in Group Seven and wasted no time racking them up. Raul scored in the first minute and Fernando Torres doubled the lead after 10. By the 50-minute-mark they were four up and finished with six, Torres scoring a treble.

But before Spain had reached two Mateja Kezman, the former Chelsea striker who now earns his keep alongside Torres in Spain with Atletico Madrid, had struck for Serbia & Montenegro against Bosnia-Herzegovina in Belgrade. It was a lead the Serbs held on to despite the late dismissal of Nemanja Vidic. They thus qualify for the World Cup for the first time as an independent nation.

Sweden, though, are able to book tickets for Germany having qualified behind Croatia in Group Eight as the best runners-up, with Poland, having defeated Iceland last night.

Elsewhere in Europe, the most surprising match was in Lecce where Italy, already qualified, were held for 70 minutes by Moldova then, having gone ahead through Christian Vieri, were quickly pegged back. It took Milan's Alberto Gilardino to ease Italy's embarrassment with five minutes left.

In Bahrain, Uzbekistan, managed by the Englishman Bob Houghton, failed to gain the goal they needed to reach the next stage. The goalless draw meant Bahrain progress to a play-off against the fourth-placed Concacaf side for a first trip to the finals and, barring a late change in the dug-out, there will be no British coaches at the World Cup for the first time since 1930.

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