Cristiano Ronaldo rescued Portugal with a speedy hat-trick to avoid a slip-up in Northern Ireland, while Netherlands dropped their first points as Spain and Germany took easier steps towards World Cup qualification.
England moved level on points at the top of Group H with Montenegro after marching to a 4-0 home win over Moldova that came as their rivals were held 1-1 in Poland.
Italy and Belgium were among the group pacesetters to take full points, while Group E leaders Switzerland could only draw 4-4 with Iceland and Group G table-toppers Bosnia surprisingly lost 1-0 at home to Slovakia.
In Belfast, Portugal were in serious danger of being knocked off the top of Group F, after second-placed Russia had earlier thumped Luxembourg 4-1, as they found themselves trailing 2-1 to Northern Ireland.
Their hosts had previous form for upsets having stunned Russia 1-0 last month and it looked like they were heading for another when Portugal’s Helder Postiga was shown a straight red card for a headbutt on Gareth McAuley just before halftime.
Northern Ireland, already out of qualifying contention, made the man advantage count early in the second half when Jamie Ward scored after a corner but Portugal’s fortunes turned when Kevin Brunt was shown a second yellow to make it 10 against 10.
Then followed 15 minutes of trademark Ronaldo brilliance as he headed in two goals and scored another from a free kick to turn the match around and put Portugal on 17 points from eight games with Russia on 15 having played one game fewer.
There were more individual plaudits in Germany’s 3-0 win over Austria in Group C as forward Miroslav Klose opened the scoring in the 34th minute to equal Gerd Mueller’s record of 68 goals for the country.
The clean sheet banished concerns over recent German defensive frailties as they stayed in control of the group on 19 points from seven matches, five ahead of Sweden who beat Ireland 2-1. Austria dropped to third on 11, level with the Irish.
“We did our homework, we defended well, we played with the right aggression and intensity,” Germany coach Joachim Loew told ZDF television.
The same could not be said of Group E leaders Switzerland, who let slip a 4-1 lead to draw 4-4 with Iceland, allowing second-placed Norway to close the gap on them to four points after they beat Cyprus 2-0.
Netherlands also had defensive questions to answer after they saw a first-minute lead secured by Arjen Robben evaporate in Tallinn where they stood seconds away from an embarrassing 2-1 defeat after a Konstantin Vassiljev double for the hosts.
The Dutch, who until this game had a perfect record of six wins from six matches, snatched a point in the third minute of stoppage time when Raio Piiroja was sent off and a penalty was awarded which Robin van Persie converted.
“We know we are better so it makes it a frustrating evening,” Robben told Dutch NOS radio with his side on 19 points from seven games – a six-point lead over Romania who leapfrogged Hungary into second place after beating them 3-0 at home.
“We have to be a little down on ourselves if we lead in the first minute and then walk off the pitch with the score at 2-2.”
Spirits were much higher at Wembley where England outclassed Moldova after two goals from Danny Welbeck and one each from captain Steven Gerrard and Rickie Lambert propelled Roy Hodgson’s side to the top of Group H on goal difference.
Montenegro, who also have 15 points but have played one game more than England, could only manage a 1-1 draw in Poland although it could have been even worse as Jakub Blaszcykowski had a 94th minute effort disallowed for offside for the hosts.
Third-placed Ukraine stayed in the chase with a 9-0 thumping of San Marino, who have conceded 38 goals in seven qualifiers, and have 14 points ahead of Tuesday’s home match with England.
The only blot on the night for England was a yellow card for Welbeck, who had a fantastic game, which rules the Manchester United striker out of the trip to Kiev.
World champions Spain were 2-0 winners in Finland as they tightened their grip on top spot in Group I, with their cause helped by second-placed France’s 0-0 draw in Georgia.
The holders stretched their lead over France to three points with two matches remaining as goals from Jordi Alba and Alvaro Negredo either side of halftime secured a comfortable win.
“We have a three-point lead now and we’re in a great position to qualify,” Spain coach Vicente del Bosque told Spanish television broadcaster Telecinco.
Spain have 14 points from six matches and play their final two qualifiers at home to Belarus and Georgia next month. They are already assured of at least a place in the playoffs.
Group A pacesetters Belgium stretched their lead at the top with a 2-0 win away to Scotland as second and third-placed Balkan rivals Serbia and Croatia drew 1-1 in Belgrade.
The Belgians, whose goals came from Steven Dafour and Kevin Mirallas, lead the standings by five points from Croatia with two matches left.
Group B leaders Italy moved to within one win of qualifying for next year’s finals in Brazil after a nervy 1-0 home victory against second-placed Bulgaria, while in the same group Czech Republic were stunned 2-1 at home by Armenia.
Group G was pushed wide open after leaders Bosnia’s unbeaten run came to an end with a 1-0 defeat at home to Slovakia.
They stay top on goal difference over Greece, who also have 16 points after a 1-0 win in Liechtenstein, with Slovakia – on 12 – also in contention for first place and direct qualification into next year’s finals.