Football: Northern Ireland assured of play-off place, Poland keep chasing pack at arm's length in Group E

Northern Ireland fans celebrate during injury time of the World Cup 2018 qualification football match between Northern Ireland and Czech Republic at Windsor Park in Belfast, Northern Ireland on Sep 4, 2017.
Northern Ireland fans celebrate during injury time of the World Cup 2018 qualification football match between Northern Ireland and Czech Republic at Windsor Park in Belfast, Northern Ireland on Sep 4, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

(REUTERS) - Northern Ireland made sure of a top-two finish in their World Cup qualifying group with a 2-0 win over the Czech Republic who were eliminated on Monday.

First-half goals from Jonny Evans and Chris Brunt gave the Northern Irish their fifth successive win in the group, all with clean sheets.

Evans headed past Tomas Vaclik in the 28th minute and Brunt curled in a superb free-kick four minutes before half-time.

Northern Ireland have 19 points in Group C with two games each to play, nine clear of third-placed Azerbaijan and five behind leaders Germany.

Fourth-placed Czech Republic are out of the running with nine points.

The winners of the nine European groups qualify directly for Russia next year and the eight best runners-up go into a play-off round for four more places.

Poland cemented their grip on Group E as headers by Arkadiusz Milik and Kamil Glik and a Robert Lewandowski penalty secured a 3-0 win over Kazakhstan in a World Cup qualifier on Monday.

Poland now have 19 points from eight games, three clear of second-placed Denmark, who surprisingly thrashed them 4-0 on Friday and Montenegro in third with two matches remaining.

Milik, who returned to action after suffering a knee injury in the 3-2 win over Denmark in October, opened the scoring after 10 minutes with a powerful close-range header.

A defensive Kazakhstan side held out until the break and had the ball in the net themselves just after half-time, but striker Roman Murtazayev's 48th-minute effort was given offside.

Another controversial moment came in the 71st minute when captain Lewandowski's free-kick appeared to cross the line but referee Andris Treimanis did not award a goal.

"I am disappointed... it was certainly a goal. I've seen it from 25 metres and the referee was standing even closer. It was odd that he denied it, but fortunately we managed to get another goals and win the match," said Lewandowksi.

Three minutes after Lewandowski's effort was disallowed, Poland did score again through defender Kamil Glik's unstoppable header from Piotr Zielinski's corner before the Bayern Munich striker wrapped up the win with an 86th-minute penalty.

"We could have scored more," added Lewandowski.

"I see no reason to hide that we lacked (a killer instinct) and quality in the last pass. The final score could have been much greater than 3-0."