Poland heads to WCup, perfection for Germany
With a record-setting 16th goal in European qualifying, Robert Lewandowski led Poland's charge into a first World Cup since 2006 on Sunday.
The Bayern Munich striker has long been one of the most prolific players in European soccer, for club and country, and he'll now be able to test himself at a global level when he competes at a World Cup for the first time next year.
Lewandowski scored Poland's third goal in its 4-2 win over Montenegro that clinched first place in Group E, at the expense of Denmark. Poland is the fifth European nation to qualify — after Belgium, Germany, England and Spain — with Russia already sure of participating as tournament host.
Lewandowski has 51 goals in 91 international matches since his debut for Poland in 2008, and became the first European player to score more than 15 goals in a World Cup qualification campaign.
That record might only last two days, with Portugal forward Cristiano Ronaldo on 15 goals in Group B with one qualifier remaining — the winner-takes-all match against Switzerland on Tuesday.
It will be Poland's eighth appearance at a World Cup, with third place its best finish in both 1974 and '82.
Denmark assured itself the consolation prize of a place in the playoffs — for the best eight runners-up from the nine groups — by drawing 1-1 at Romania. Northern Ireland's spot in the playoffs was also confirmed on Sunday, but Slovakia must wait despite clinching second place in Group F behind unbeaten England.
Here's a look at Sunday's action in European qualifying:
Poland needed only a point in Warsaw to qualify automatically for the World Cup as group winner, but even that was in doubt when Montenegro pulled level at 2-2 in the 83rd after scoring two goals in five minutes.
Lewandowski seized on a sloppy back-pass to score and put Poland 3-2 ahead, before Filip Stojkovic's own-goal ended any further suspense.
Poland ended up winning the group by five points, as Denmark failed to hold onto a lead earned by Christian Eriksen's 60th-minute penalty. Romania lost Cristian Ganea to a red card for two bookings, but still equalized through Ciprian Deac in the 88th.
Montenegro finished third with 16 points — four fewer than Denmark — ahead of Romania on 13.
Heading into the final round, three teams — Slovakia, Scotland and Slovenia — were in contention to finish second and it went down to the wire. The latter two were playing each other, in the Slovenian capital Ljubliana.
Slovakia won 3-0 at home to Malta but still needed Scotland to fail to win.
The Scots went 1-0 up through Leigh Griffiths, conceded twice to substitute Roman Bezjak in the 52nd and 72nd minutes, then equalized in the 88th through Robert Snodgrass. Bostjan Cesar's red card in injury time left Slovenia a man down for the final three minutes, but Scotland couldn't find a winner.
Slovakia finished tied on 18 points with Scotland, but ahead on goal difference, and now has to wait to see if it gets a playoff spot.
England finished qualifying with eight wins and two draws after beating Lithuania 1-0 thanks to Harry Kane's first-half penalty, the Tottenham striker's 15th goal in his last 10 games for club and country.
Germany completed a perfect qualification campaign by beating Azerbaijan 5-1 in Kaiserslautern for a 10th straight win.
Leon Goretzka scored twice, with Sandro Wagner — with his fifth goal in five international appearances — Antonio Rudiger and Emre Can also on target to leave the Germans with 43 goals in total.
Switzerland is the only other country that can finish European qualifying with maximum points.
Northern Ireland knew before its match in Norway began that a playoff place was guaranteed, courtesy of Slovakia finishing second in Group F and having an inferior points haul than the Northern Irish.
Norway won 1-0 thanks to a comical own-goal by Chris Brunt, who booted the ball into the roof of his own net from a meter out as he attempted to make a clearance. Czech Republic finished third, ahead of Norway, after beating San Marino 5-0 for its biggest win in qualifying.
San Marino lost all 10 games, scoring only two goals and conceding 51.
Denmark, Italy and Northern Ireland are the only three countries guaranteed to be in the lineup for the playoffs, with six groups still to be decided.