Spain, England and Russia sealed spots in next year's World Cup finals yesterday, while Bosnia-Herzegovina also topped their group to reach a major tournament for the first time as an independent nation.
On the final night of group-stage play, France and Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal were consigned to next month's playoffs - just like in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup - but the rest of Europe's leading teams will definitely be in Brazil next summer.
The other second-place finishers to make the playoffs yesterday were Iceland, Greece, Ukraine and Romania and Croatia, joining Sweden which had already advanced to Monday's draw. Denmark had the worst record of the nine group runners-up and missed out.
Spain will defend their world title after securing top spot in Group I ahead of France by beating Georgia 2-0, with Alvaro Negredo and Juan Mata scoring. The French overcame Finland 3-0, but needed Georgia to pull off a shock in Albacete to climb above the Spanish.
Wayne Rooney's first-half header and Steven Gerrard's late solo goal earned England a nerve-shredding 2-0 win over Poland at Wembley Stadium and the three points they needed to stay ahead of Ukraine in Group H and reach a fifth straight Finals with an unbeaten record. The Ukrainians' 8-0 win in San Marino proved immaterial.
"We have a great togetherness, are there for each other and proved we can perform under pressure," Gerrard said.
The feel-good story of the night came in Kaunas, where Bosnia-Herzegovina sparked scenes of delirium back in Sarajevo by beating Lithuania 1-0 through Vedad Ibisevic's 68th-minute goal to reach their first World Cup since being granted independence from Yugoslavia in 1992.
For many Bosnians, football has been a rare cause for joy since the country descended into nearly four years of war two decades ago, killing more than 100,000 people and leaving a legacy of poverty, high unemployment and political strife.
The national team had missed out on the last two major tournaments by losing in the play-offs to Portugal both times, but this time, Bosnia-Herzegovina got it right.
Almost 10,000 Bosnians jumped, cried and screamed 'Vamos Bosnia', or 'go Bosnia' in Portuguese, in the central square in Sarajevo when Ibisevic scored what proved to be the winner after good work by Edin Dzeko, and fans were heading to the airport to wait for their team to arrive in the middle of the night.
Greece defeated Liechtenstein 2-0, but lost out to the Bosnians on goal difference.
Russia only needed a point to guarantee first place in Group F and drew 1-1 at Azerbaijan. Portugal's 3-0 win over Luxembourg was in vain, leaving Ronaldo's side a point behind. They must go through the play-offs to reach a major tournament for the third straight time.
It was still a nervy finish for Russia, which opened the scoring through Roman Shirokov in the 15th and was further boosted when Maksim Medvedev was dismissed for Azerbaijan in the 75th. However, the hosts equalised when Vagif Javadov headed home in the 90th but Russia, coached by former England manager Fabio Capello, held on for the point to qualify for a World Cup for the first time since the 2002 tournament.