Defending champion Germany wrapped up the most successful World Cup qualification campaign with a 5-1 victory over Azerbaijan on Sunday, its 10th win from 10 games.
With many regulars left out by Germany, it was up to others to shine in European qualifying, and Schalke midfielder Leon Goretzka made his case for inclusion in the World Cup squad with two goals. Hoffenheim’s Sandro Wagner claimed his fifth goal in five qualifiers.
Germany, which secured qualification on Thursday, finished Group C with a maximum 30 points, and a European record 43 goals scored, with just four conceded.
Only Spain had previously achieved the same feat of 10 wins in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, albeit with an inferior goal difference.
The Spanish team went on to win the tournament and Germans are hoping history repeats next year in Russia as their side bids for back-to-back World Cup titles.
Germany was without Real Madrid midfielder Toni Kroos, who was allowed to return to Spain to fully heal a rib injury, and Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Julian Draxler, who had an illness.
Goretzka got the home side off to a great start with a brilliant back-heeled goal inside the left post in the eighth minute. Wagner came close only to be foiled by brave goalkeeping from Kamran Agayev around the half-hour mark, before Ramil Sheydaev scored against the run of play at the other end.
Shkodran Mustafi pulled up with an apparent thigh injury and was unable to follow Sheydaev, who eluded Antonio Ruediger and beat Bernd Leno at his near post. Matthias Ginter came on for the injured Mustafi, Germany’s second substitution with Niklas Suele already off with an apparent left thigh problem.
Germany showed more urgency after the interval. After several near misses, Wagner finally scored with a header to Julian Brandt’s cross in the 54th. Goal-line technology confirmed the ball crossed the line before Ruslan Abisov’s headed clearance.
Ruediger headed Germany’s third goal, two minutes before Goretzka claimed his second, and Emre Can wrapped it up late with a brilliant strike from distance.
PLAYOFF FOR NORTHERN IRELAND
Northern Ireland knew before its 1-0 defeat to Norway in Oslo that it was assured of a playoff place. Norway became the only side other than Germany to score against Michael O’Neill’s side through Chris Brunt’s own-goal midway through the second half.
The left back attempted to clear with a volley from a meter out after goalkeeper Michael McGovern parried the ball into the air, but only succeeded in booting the ball into the roof of his own net.
Northern Ireland finished the group with 19 points, four more than the Czech Republic, which routed San Marino 5-0 in Pilsen.