London: The Netherlands and Italy celebrated becoming the first European teams to book places at next year’s World Cup in Brazil on Tuesday when the final pieces of the continent’s qualifying jigsaw began to fall into place.
The Dutch sealed their place after a Robin van Persie double gave them a 2-0 win in Andorra while Italy came from behind to beat the Czech Republic 2-1 in Turin with Mario Balotelli scoring the goal that sealed their berth from the penalty spot.
Qualification represents something of a redemption for Dutch coach Louis van Gaal who failed to steer the country to the 2002 World Cup in his previous stint as coach.
“We have done the job. We could not have qualified quicker for the World Cup than the way we did. We are the first from Europe,” Van Gaal told reporters.
Italy, one of only 13 teams who took part in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, made sure they would be among the 32 nations at the finals next year with their comeback win in Turin.
Libor Kozak threatened to ruin Italy’s celebrations when he put the Czechs ahead after 19 minutes but second half goals from Giorgio Chiellini after 51 minutes and Balotelli from the spot three minutes later gave the Italians the points.
Costa Rica and the United States have also guaranteed their places in the 32-team finals from the Concacaf region.
In Asuncion, Lionel Messi converted two penalties as Argentina booked their ticket to the finals with a crushing 5-2 away win over Paraguay.
Argentina lead the South American group on 29 points with two qualifiers remaining next month. The top four qualify automatically and the group leaders can now only be overtaken by Colombia and Chile.
Colombia, in second place in the nine-nation group, needed a mere point on Tuesday but it eluded them in a 0-2 defeat by Uruguay, who visit Ecuador next month for what looks like being a straight clash for the fourth automatic berth.
Chile, who had a bye and drew 2-2 with World Cup holders Spain in a friendly, are in third place two points ahead of Ecuador and Uruguay with outsiders Venezuela hovering in sixth and hoping for a slip up from their rivals.
Messi said it was good for his country to have qualified but there was still a lot of work to do if they wanted to win the World Cup next year.
“There are seven matches to win a World Cup and you've got to be 100 percent, you can't make a mistake or you'll remain out of it,” he told reporters.
Germany’s 3-0 win in the Faroe Islands thanks to goals from Per Mertesacker, a Mesut Ozil penalty and Thomas Mueller, means they will qualify if they beat Ireland at home in the first of their two remaining matches next month.
However, they cannot book their tickets just yet because Sweden’s 1-0 win in Kazakhstan means they could still pip the Germans to top spot in Group C. Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored after 27 seconds for their fastest goal in 101 years.
In Ohio, second-half goals from Eddie Johnson and Landon Donovan gave Juergen Klinsmann’s United States a 2-0 win over Mexico to move them to top of the standings on 16 points.
Costa Rica drew 1-1 in Kingston against Jamaica, taking them to 15 points, and with Honduras drawing 2-2 at home to Panama, none of the other four teams in the group can push the leading duo out of the top three automatic qualifying spots.