LONDON -- Spain put its World Cup defence back on track Tuesday by beating France to seize control of their qualifying group, while Germany and the Netherlands claimed big victories to push them closer to the finals in Brazil.
Pedro Rodriguez scored the Spain goal that secured a 1-0 victory in Paris and lifted 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.
Germany surged eight points ahead in Group C by beating Kazakhstan 4-1, and the Netherlands maintained their perfect run in qualifying by routing Romania 4-0 to go seven points clear in Group D.
But England stumbled again, drawing 1-1 at Group H leader Montenegro to remain two points adrift.
Mario Balotelli's double gave Italy a 2-0 victory in Malta and a three-point lead in Group B over Bulgaria.
Like Italy, Spain remains unbeaten and is now in the group position it is more accustomed to.
Pedro settled a fiercely contested match in Paris in the 58th minute after being 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.
"They are three welcome points, and this changes our group position for the better," Spain coach Vicente del Bosque said. "We stuck to our way of playing tonight and we're happy with that.
"There are still three games left so there is plenty of time left to drop points, for both sides. This isn't over although it's true France missed a chance to pull away."
That's exactly what Germany managed to do thanks to second-place Austria, which has a game in hand, being held to a 2-2 draw at Ireland.
Four days after winning 3-0 in Kazakhstan, Germany claimed the same victory margin in Nuremberg.
Marco Reus marked his return from suspension by scoring the opener from 20 yards (meters) in the 23rd minute and rounding off the victory with Germany's fourth in the 90th.
Mario Goetze and lkay Guendogan also found the net, while Heinrich Schmidtgal scored Kazakhstan's only goal at the start of the second half after an error by goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.
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 and then got on the scoresheet twice himself in the second half.
The Manchester United striker netted with 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.
After the penalty was earned by AC Milan strike partner Stephan El Shaarawy, Balotelli coolly converted in the seventh and then scored again on the stroke of halftime to make it 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."
It became an even better night for Italy with second-place Bulgaria drawing 1-1 in Denmark. The Czech Republic rose to third by winning 3-0 in Armenia.
England might have to settle for a place in the playoffs afforded to the second-place teams after its third draw so far in qualifying.
The night had started well in Montenegro when Wayne Rooney was left unmarked to head in Steven Gerrard's corner in the sixth minute.
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.
By the time England plays its next qualifier in September against Moldova, Montenegro could be five points ahead if the leaders beat Ukraine in June.
The leaders in Group A are only split by goal difference, with Belgium remaining ahead of Croatia after Eden Hazard's goal clinched a 1-0 victory over Macedonia. Croatia came from behind to win 2-1 in Wales.
The qualifying hopes of bottom-place Scotland officially ended with a 2-0 loss at third-place Serbia.
In Group F, the fight for second place remains tight with Israel only ahead of Portugal on goal difference after they both won 2-0 away. Portugal claimed its first win in six games by beating 10-man Azerbaijan, while Israel beat Northern Ireland.
Russia is only a point ahead of Israel and Portugal but has two games in hand.