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Football: Germans stroll on as Croatians take Balkan honours

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Bolstered by two quickfire first half goals, Germany maintained their remarkable record of never having lost an away World Cup qualifier by easing past Kazakhstan 3-0 in Astana on Friday.

The win made it 13 points from five Group C games for Joachim Loew's side and lifted them provisionally six points clear of Sweden, who were facing Ireland later.

Playing without a recognised spearhead after Mario Gomez strained a thigh muscle, the result was never in doubt once Bastian Schweinsteiger had volleyed home the opener on 20 minutes to take his tally for the national team to 24.

Barely two minutes later, Mario Goetze snaffled the second, the Borussia Dortmund midfielder netting his fourth international goal.

The Kazakhs did briefly try to respond as substitute Ulan Konysbayev struck the bar midway through the second half before keeper Manuel Neuer saved a fierce effort from Germany-based Genrikh Schmidtgal.

But the Germans weathered the brief storm and Thomas Mueller drove home low and hard for the clincher after Mesut Oezil neatly fed him with 16 minutes remaining.

Germany will now expect to add another three points to their tally when the sides meet again in Nuremberg on Tuesday, when they will have Dortmund star Marco Reus back from suspension although Schweinsteiger will have to sit out the encounter owing to his booking in Friday's game.

In other early Friday highlights, Croatia took the honours -- along with three valuable points -- in their Balkan grudge match against Serbia.

Croatia went provisionally three points clear of Belgium in Group A with 13 points from five matches after first-half goals from Bayern Munich forward Mario Mandzukic and veteran Ivica Olic of Wolfsburg proved sufficient.

The meeting at the Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb was the first between the two former foes as independent nations since the bloody 1990s war that tore apart the former Yugoslavia.

Elsewhere, Cristiano Ronaldo picked up a booking and with it a one-match ban as Portugal could only manage a 3-3 draw away to Israel, leaving the Real Madrid star's side four points adrift of Group F leaders Russia.

Russia had hoped to bolster that margin with a win later away to Northern Ireland but Fabio Capello's men must wait 24 hours after heavy snow in Belfast forced a postponement with the Windsor Park pitch unplayable.

Fabio Coentrao, who had already hit the crossbar, rescued a point for Paulo Bento's side in injury time after Hugo Almeida nodded on a Carlos Martins cross.

The draw leaves both Israel and the Portuguese, who now take on Azerbaijan next Tuesday, on eight points from five games but with only the group winners guaranteed a berth in the finals in Brazil, the Russians appear to hold the whip hand.

"The goal after just two minutes should have buoyed us but instead it ended up doing the opposite -- we let our intensity drop and weren't aggressive defensively," Bento told Portuguese television.

In Group E, Albania scored a surprise 1-0 win at Norway in Oslo to move into second place, one point behind leaders Switzerland.

With Italy not in action this week having taken on Brazil in a prestige friendly Thursday, Bulgaria closed the gap at the top of Group B to a single point by thrashing whipping boys Malta 6-0, Alexandar Tomev scoring a hattrick.

Later Friday, England were looking to dislodge Group H early pacesetters Montenegro with a win away to ultra-minnows San Marino with the Montenegrins at Moldova.

World champions Spain were hosting Group I tailenders Finland while France, who are level pegging with the Spaniards on points, host Georgia.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130322/football-germans-stroll-croatians-take-balkan-honours