Germany, England Qualify for 2018 World Cup; Poland Close In
Poland’s Lewandowski became the most prolific scorer in a European qualifying campaign with 15, one ahead of Ronaldo
Germany and England booked places at the World Cup in Russia next year, while Poland was made to wait for qualification in Europe despite thrashing Armenia 6-1 on Thursday.
Defending champion Germany never looked like missing out as early goals helped it to beat Northern Ireland 3-1 in Belfast, maintaining its perfect record with nine wins from nine games in Group C.
England qualified in contrasting fashion, scraping past Slovenia 1-0 thanks to Harry Kane's injury-time strike in a poor team performance at Wembley Stadium.
Robert Lewandowski scored a hat trick in Yerevan, Armenia, to become Poland's all-time highest scorer and put his team on the verge of qualification.
A draw later between Montenegro and Denmark would have meant Poland clinched Group E, but Christian Eriksen gave Denmark a 1-0 win in Podgorica to keep alive its slim hope of topping the group.
Group winners qualify automatically for the finals in Russia.
Here's a closer look at the action across the three groups:
Northern Ireland hadn't lost a qualifier in Windsor Park for four years, but it got off to a bad start when Germany's Sebastian Rudy fired the ball inside the top corner from distance in the second minute.
Sandro Wagner brought a good save from Michael McGovern and hit the post before he finally scored in the 21st to give Germany a comfortable lead.
Joshua Kimmich wrapped it up late, and Josh Magennis got the enthusiastic home fans singing again with the home side's consolation after a corner in injury time.
Northern Ireland was already assured of at least second place, but only the top eight runners-up from the nine groups advance to playoffs.
Already out of contention, the Czech Republic defeated Azerbaijan 2-1 in Baku to move to third, and Mohamed "Moi" Elyounoussi scored a hat trick as Norway routed San Marino 8-0.
Germany coach Joachim Loew said before his side's game in Belfast that he wants to complete qualifying with 10 wins from 10 games, a feat accomplished previously by only Spain before it won the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
With his third hat trick in the campaign, Poland striker Lewandowski became the most prolific scorer in a European qualifying campaign with 15, one ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Lewandowski curled in a free kick to tie Wlodzimierz Lubanski's record as Poland's all-time leading scorer on 48 goals and then added two more to own it outright with 50.
Following Denmark's 1-0 win in Montenegro, Poland leads by three points over Denmark, and it needs a point from the last-round match on Sunday against Montenegro in Warsaw to automatically qualify as the group winner.
Denmark, which handed Poland its only defeat in the group stage by 4-0, hosts Romania in the last round and must win to top the group.
Kane secured England's place in the fourth minute of additional time when he latched onto Kyle Walker's cross and struck under goalkeeper Jan Oblak for the side's flattering win over Slovenia.
It was a rare highlight on a dreary and subdued night that highlighted the limitations of Gareth Southgate's Russia-bound team.
England, which hasn't missed a World Cup since 1994, could still be joined in Russia next year by neighbor Scotland.
Martin Skrtel's own goal gave Scotland a 1-0 victory over 10-man Slovakia in Glasgow.
The Scots, missing from the World Cup since 1998, will be guaranteed second place and a potential place in the playoffs if they beat Slovenia in the last round of games on Sunday.
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