MANCHESTER, England — With a third straight win in qualifying, defending champion Germany is enjoying a comfortable ride on the road to the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Things just got a bit tougher for England, though.
While England’s winning start to Group F ended with a poor display in a 0-0 draw at Slovenia on Tuesday, Germany maintained its 100 percent record after three rounds by beating Northern Ireland 2-0. Only three other teams — Belgium, Greece and Switzerland — have opened European qualifying with three successive victories.
Goals in the first 17 minutes from Julian Draxler and Sami Khedira gave Germany a commanding lead that was never really threatened in Hannover. Joachim Loew tied Sepp Herberger’s record of 94 wins as Germany coach and it couldn’t be going much better for the world champions’ settled team: Three wins from three games, eight goals scored and none conceded.
England also leads its group but the displays are hardly encouraging for its fans. Three days after a tedious 2-0 win over Malta, England required a brilliant performance from goalkeeper Joe Hart to earn a point in Ljubljana.
One of Hart’s saves was sensational, when he tipped Jasmin Kurtic’s header onto the bar off a corner and then clawed the loose ball away from the line in his next movement. Hart also denied Slovenia in two one-on-one chances, gifted by slack England back-passes.
England’s national team is in a state of flux, just a few months after an embarrassing last-16 loss to Iceland in the European Championship. Gareth Southgate is in interim charge after Sam Allardyce left as coach last month — after just 67 days in the job — following a newspaper sting, and captain Wayne Rooney was dropped against Slovenia because of poor form.
England’s young team is still the favorite to qualify from Group F and has a two-point lead after three games.
Here’s a look at the rest of the action on the final night of qualifiers in this latest period of internationals:
The only team close to Germany is Azerbaijan, which settled for a 0-0 draw against the Czech Republic in Ostrava after opening with two wins.
In the other match, Norway defeated San Marino 4-1 in Oslo for its first points in qualifying. There was still time for celebrations for the 201st-ranked visitors, who scored their first away goal in World Cup qualifying since 2001 when Mattia Stefanelli equalized nine minutes into the second half.
Norway scored three goals in the final 13 minutes, through Adama Diomande, Martin Samuelsen and Joshua King.
Robert Lewandowski struck five minutes into stoppage time to earn Poland a 2-1 victory over 10-man Armenia and keep the team on pace with Montenegro at the top of the group.
It was the eighth consecutive qualifier that Lewandowski has scored in, with his latest goal coming three days after a hat trick in a 3-2 win over Denmark.
Armenia lost Gael Andonian in the 30th minute after two yellow cards in two minutes. Hrayr Mkoyan netted an own goal to put Poland 1-0 up in the 48th minute before Marcos Pinheiro equalized in the 50th.
Montenegro beat Denmark 1-0 away thanks to Fatos Beciraj’s 32nd-minute goal and is well-placed to challenge Poland and qualify for the World Cup for the first time. Both Poland and Montenegro have seven points from three games.
Romania was held 0-0 by Kazakhstan in the other game.
Slovenia stayed two points behind England after three games and was joined on five points by Lithuania, which beat Malta 2-0 for its first win in the group.
Fiodor Cernych and Arvydas Novikovas, from the penalty spot, scored in the final 14 minutes to leave Malta without a point so far.
In the other game, Robert Mak scored two goals and set up the third for Adam Nemec as Slovakia beat Scotland 3-0 to earn its first points in qualifying. It was Scotland’s first loss, coming three days after a disappointing 1-1 draw at home to Lithuania.Only two nations, Portugal in 1985 and England in 2001, have recorded wins over the Germans in their 86 World Cup qualifiers.