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More woe for Germany as long perfect WC qualifying run ends

England, Italy, Spain and France win

LONDON, April 1, (AP): Germany’s first World Cup qualifying loss in 20 years added another blemish to the final months of coach Joachim Löw’s 15- year reign in charge of the team. Germany’s 35-match unbeaten run in World Cup qualifying – a streak dating back to 2001 – ended with a stunning 2-1 home loss to North Macedonia that left the team sitting third in their group after three games.

North Macedonia’s Stefan Ristovski (left), challenges for the ball with Germany’s Ilkay Gundogan during the World Cup 2022 Group J qualifying soccer match between Germany and North Macedonia in Duisburg, Germany, Wednesday. (AP)

Goran Pandev, a 37-year-old striker playing in his 20th year of international football, was part of the North Macedonia team that shocked Germany, scoring the opener in first-half stoppage time. Ilkay Gundogan equalized from the penalty spot but after Timo Werner missed a golden chance to put Germany ahead and potentially earn the team a 19th straight World Cup qualifying victory, Eljif Elmas scored the winner for North Macedonia in the 85th at the end of a counterattack.

Europe’s other major powers ended the first batch of qualifying games on a successful note, with England, Italy, Spain and France all picking up wins before they switch their focus to the Euros. Spain’s 3-1 victory at home to Kosovo attracted attention because of the host country’s non-recognition of the visitors, with the Spanish national broadcaster disregarding normal protocol by not mentioning Kosovo as a country and using lowercase letters for “kos” in its graphics.

Spain does not recognize Kosovo’s 2008 independence from Serbia. John Stones made amends for an embarrassing defensive blunder by setting up a late winner for fellow center back Harry Maguire as England beat Poland 2-1 to stay perfect in Group I. Stones’ heavy touch at the edge of his own area saw him get dispossessed, leading to Jakub Moder equalizing for Poland to cancel out Harry Kane’s penalty – his 34th goal for England. Redemption came for the Manchester City defender when his header at the far post kept a corner in play and Maguire swept a finish high into the net in the 85th minute at Wembley Stadium. Poland was without injured star striker Robert Lewandowski. England lead by two points from Hungary, which won 4-1 at Andorra. Albania rose above Poland into third place by beating San Marino 2-0.

Italy’s unbeaten run extended to 25 games with a 2-0 win in Lithuania as Roberto Mancini’s halftime changes had an immediate impact. Substitute Stefano Sensi scored three minutes into the second half before Ciro Immobile converted a stoppage- time penalty. Italy, which failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, moved three points ahead of Switzerland atop Group C. Northern Ireland and Bulgaria have a point apiece after drawing 0-0. Spain moved onto seven points and leads by one from Sweden, which has a game in hand. Greece is third after a 1-1 draw with Georgia. France continued their recovery from an opening- round draw to Ukraine, beating Bosnia-Herzegovina 1-0 to follow up a 2-0 win over Kazakhstan on Sunday.

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