Cristiano Ronaldo rescued Portugal with a hat-trick to avoid a slip-up in Northern Ireland as Spain and Germany took easier steps towards World Cup qualification on Friday.
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. Group G table-toppers Bosnia lost 1-0 at home to Slovakia.
In Belfast, Portugal were in danger of being knocked off the top of Group F after second-placed Russia had thumped Luxembourg 4-1, as they found themselves trailing 2-1 to Northern Ireland.
Portugal's Helder Postiga was shown a straight red card for a headbutt on Gareth McAuley just before halftime and Northern Ireland, out of contention, scored.
Germany's 3-0 win over Austria in Group C saw forward Miroslav Klose open the scoring in the 34th minute to equal Gerd Mueller's record of 68 goals for the country. World champions Spain were 2-0 winners in Finland as they tightened their grip on top spot in Group I.
World Cup qualification celebrations in Argentina and Colombia were put on hold until at least the next round of South American fixtures after Uruguay eked out a vital 2-1 victory over Peru in Lima as Luis Suarez netted twice.