Joachim Low cautious but Germany firepower is a serious threat to Northern Ireland
World Cup 2018 Qualifying Group C: Northern Ireland v Germany (tonight, Windsor Park, 7.45pm, live on Sky Sports Football)
JOACHIM Low doesn’t get a lot wrong, but you could quibble with some of his views about the importance of this match.
The Germany manager argued that this “does have the air or atmosphere of a final” but the reality it’s a game that neither side needs to win.
The visitors will want to, in order to maintain their 100 per cent record in this group. The hosts would love to, for another famous night at Windsor Park.
However, a draw would be good enough for both teams to achieve their aims. Germany would top the group and seal qualification before their final match at home to Azerbaijan.
A share of the spoils would obviously rank as a great result for Northern Ireland – and, more importantly, would be enough to secure their place in the World Cup play-offs.
Low also suggested that Michael O’Neill’s men “have nothing to lose” when in fact a defeat would damage their ranking and consequently
their chances of being among the four top seeds if they do reach that last stage of qualification for Russia 2018.
Still, an away win wouldn’t surprise anyone, even if the German media at yesterday’s lengthy press conference seemed mightily concerned about the apparent decline of their nation’s club sides.
German teams have lost nine and won just one out of 12 games so far in the Champions and Europa Leagues, that solitary victory coming for Bayern Munich against Anderlecht.
Low expects a test, saying: “With first place against second place, Northern Ireland have practically qualified and can go top.
“They will not play all or nothing, but they will be more risk-orientated, they have nothing to lose and will go for it. The crowd will be very boisterous.
“Northern Ireland have exceeded expectations, but they are there by right, they are very disciplined, they have not conceded many goals.”
In truth, talk of a home win is rather fanciful, especially with the Germans still having something to play for.
It’s almost 21 years since Northern Ireland avoided defeat against Germany, November 1996 when Gerry Taggart’s opener in Nuremberg was quickly cancelled out by Andy Moeller, in a 1-1 draw.
It’s nearly 34 years since the last win, earned by Norman Whiteside in Hamburg, just a year after the only other victory – courtesy of Ian Stewart in Belfast in 1982 – in 16 meetings with West Germany/ Germany.
It doesn’t help that the hosts are stretched somewhat defensively, with Aaron Hughes joining Craig Cathcart on the injured list.
Although Gareth McAuley is likely to return after missing the last two matches, probably replacing Hughes, ‘Big G’, for all his qualities, isn’t necessarily the best type of central defender to face Germany’s movement.
As O’Neill stated, Northern Ireland will have to “defend as a team”, something they have admittedly done very well so far, keeping seven clean sheets.
The exception came in Hannover almost a year ago, with two early German goals, but the visitors dug in after that.
They’ll have to do likewise from the outset tonight. With that in mind, apart from having to replace Hughes, Michael O’Neill is likely select a slightly more cautious line-up than started against the Czech Republic last time out. Shane Ferguson may come into midfield, with Conor Washington dropping out, as the in-form Josh Magennis should get the nod to play a lone striker role.
Ollie Norwood has been excellent in the defensive midfield role, but will need help from Steven Davis and Corry Evans, and the wide midfielders.
Germany are missing a few players, among them attacking left-back Jonas Hector – likely to be replaced by Marvin Plattenhardt of Hertha Berlin – and also attackers, including Mesut Ozil of Arsenal, plus Timo Werner and Mario Gomez.
Still, Low has plenty of talent to select from. The late-blooming Lars Stindl of Borussia Moenchengladbach, who only made his senior international debut this year at the age of almost 29, has been mooted as their centre-forward. He scored three times at the Confederations Cup, including the only goal of the final against Chile.
With Thomas Muller and Julian Draxler in their ranks, Germany should still have the firepower to rip apart Northern Ireland’s clean sheet record.
DISCIPLINE, defensively and indeed all over the pitch, will be vital for Northern Ireland tonight, but the hosts have been preparing for numerical disadvantages tonight, even if they’re not actually real.
Despite having six players on yellow cards, Michael O’Neill isn’t worried about some of his players getting sent off, but rather has been readying his team for the whirlwind of German attacking.
The hosts know they will be ‘outnumbered’, with O’Neill at times probably set to look like a frazzled parent trying to corral a group of toddlers in a play-park.
As home skipper Steven Davis put it, “When you play Germany it is like you are up against an extra man.
“They are very clever in their movements and the positions they take up.
“They obviously work to try and get two v one in areas. You have to be fully concentrated for the whole match. If you switch off for one second they can hurt you.”
At least Northern Ireland have attempted in training to replicate the problems they will face, although O’Neill (inset) played down his part in typically modest fashion: “It’s not something that other coaches don’t do. If you set up defensive practice it’s pretty basic – give the other team more men.
“It’s related to how the opponent plays, systems.
“Germany are probably the hardest team to read because you look at their games, they played three, then four at the back…
“In terms of personnel, because there’s so much quality and depth in the German squad, it’s a little bit more difficult to predict how they are going to play from tactical and personnel points of view.
“We have to be clever in terms of how we structure games – we set up training routines, re-create scenarios looking back at how the Germans play and what might happen.
“We did little things, 11 v 10, and put conditions on players, different scenarios where we put conditions on the opposing team to make them play like Germany…
“Whether it’s 10 v 8 or 10 v 6 or whatever targets we have, all of that is based on being good without the ball and incisive with it. That’s the best way to do it.
“If we played 11 v 11, the starting team is going to have more possession, and that doesn’t replicate how this game will be. We put a lot of thought into it.
“Players do it well. It’s a part of training they maybe don’t enjoy as much as other aspects but I think they value the importance of it.”
Although they’re expected to lose tonight, O’Neill insists that isn’t a concern: “We shouldn’t fear the outcome of the game, the players have done the work in this group, guaranteed second spot, had a great record, and put ourselves in a really strong position for the play-offs.
“Whatever happens will not take away from the campaign we’ve had, it will only enhance it if we put in a performance.
“Hopefully we find a way to win the game, or find something to take from the game. It’s a great game for us in that respect, we’ve got the points and the hard work in many ways has been done – we’re approaching it with a sense of optimism rather than anything else”.