Germany whip up a storm as Michael O'Neill turns his gaze towards Euro 2020 play-offs
Euro 2020 qualification Group C: Germany 6 Northern Ireland 1
IT WAS here 10 days ago when it really kicked off. Heading into injury-time at the end of a Bundesliga clash with Freiburg, Eintracht Frankfurt captain David Abraham charged towards the sideline to retrieve the ball as his side chased a one goal deficit.
Freiburg coach Christian Streich watched as the ball ran out past him, and for that apparent indiscretion found himself on the receiving end of a solid shoulder. All hell broke loose around him, reds and yellows were flashed as Freiburg players chased Abraham around the pitch like Benny Hill in wholly inappropriate pursuit of the object of his affections.
While that was happening, Streich lay stretched out on his back. This must have been how the Northern Ireland players felt at the Commerzbank Arena last night as they were hit for six by a Serge Gnabry-inspired Germany. It was a night, though, where thoughts were also 1,000 miles away - at the Cardiff City Stadium, where the result of Wales and Hungary was ultimately of much more interest to Michael O’Neill and Northern Ireland than their own dead rubber.
Wales’s 2-0 win means Northern Ireland now know their play-off fate; an away trip to Bosnia on March 26, while the possibility of an all-Ireland showdown is still alive, as Mick McCarthy’s Republic of Ireland taking on Slovakia in the other Path B semi-final. Before then, Northern Ireland will have to lick their wounds and put to the back of minds last night’s drubbing. By the close of play, with a Serge Gnabry hat-trick, two for Leon Goretzka and a Julian Brandt strike doing the business for Germany, it would have been easy to forget that O’Neill’s men had actually hit the front seven minutes in.
And when that goal did come it was from a most unlikely source – right-back Michael Smith. Shane Ferguson started the ball rolling when he caught Lukas Klostermann napping, his quick throw in finding George Saville, whose cross into the box from the left was poked clear by Toni Kroos. Smith was hovering around the D and seemed to have an age to size up his options before drilling beyind Marc-Andre Ter Stegen’s outstretched right hand.
It was a fantastic start for Northern Ireland, but also kick-started the Germans – who made six changes from their weekend win over Belarus - into action, with Bailey Peacock-Farrell leaping and spreading himself, Schmeichel-esque, to deny Serge Gnabry after 10 minutes.
A minute later an Ilkay Gundogan header struck the post as the heat was turned up on a freezing cold night in Frankfurt, but O’Neill’s men had another chance of their own when Paddy McNair dispossessed the dawdling Jonathan Tah, and looked set to rattle the net until Joshua Kimmich got across just in time to block his effort.
As the half wore on, the metronomic Toni Kroos became increasingly influential, in particular exposing gaps down Northern Ireland’s right side. In the 18th minute he found the raiding run of Jonas Hector, whose loss cross deflected off Craig Cathcart and hit Peacock-Farrell before being cleared to safety. And it was down this avenue that the equaliser eventually came a minute later when Hector was again found in acres of space before cutting the ball back to Gnabry, who swivelled and fired into the top corner.
It wasn’t just the Germans who were getting joy down the left though, with Ferguson and Saville dovetailing brilliantly at times. But Jogi Low’s side were beginning to expose the openness of the Northern Ireland approach, and they took the lead two minutes before half-time when the tall Leon Goretzka got his big toe to another low Hector cross into the 18 yard box.
That sent them in at half-time with their tails up, and it got even better when Gnabry’s second of the night moved them into a 3-1 lead just two minutes into the second half. This time the danger came down the right side, with the brilliant Kimmich finding Klosterman advancing into the box. He wasted no time in pulling the ball back to the Bayern Munich star, who drilled low into the far corner.
At that point, you began to wonder just what the score might end up. Gnabry famously put five past Spurs as the German champions swept to a 7-1 win in north London last month, and he looked in the mood to inflict similar damage. Having flashed a header wide, Gnabry completed his hat-trick with half an hour still left to play when he ran on to a delicious Julian Brandt pass. Thomas Flanagan looked to have done enough to hold him off but tumbled at the decisive moment, allowing Gnabry to slot under Peacock-Farrell. Goretzka made it 5-1 with his second of the night in the 72nd minute, before Cathcart was left one on one with Brandt as injury-time approach, outfoxing the Watford defender before sending a classy strike into the top corner to complete the rout.
Regardless of last night’s result, however, O’Neill can look back with pride on his final qualifying campaign, and particularly some magic moments earlier this year as Northern Ireland set the pace in a group containing two of Europe’s heavyweights. Their fans have enjoyed the drama of this latest journey too, with memories still fresh of Josh Magennis’s late winner at home to Belarus back in March, Conor Washington and Magennis again scoring in the 77th and 80th minutes to seal a 2-1 come-from-behind win in Estonia. There was Paddy McNair’s dramatic 86th minute winner in Minsk three days later to keep the flame burning, but the biggest struggle was always coming to come as they headed for home along the final straight.
Germany came good after a shaky first half in Belfast, the Netherlands left it late in Rotterdam, and as Steven Davis’s penalty kick sailed high into the night sky on Saturday night, dreams of automatic qualification went with it. From the moment the draw was made, the play-offs always looked the most likely route, and so it is. O’Neill goes back to the day job at Stoke City with plenty to mull over in the next five months.
And when he eventually does walk away for good, whether that is next March or a final swansong at the Euros, he will do so having raised the bar considerably.
Bailey Peacock-Farrell: Spread himself well to deny Gnabry in the 10th minute, and was in the right spot to stop Craig Cathcart’s miscued clearance from hitting the net shortly after. Got a hand to the first Gnabry goal but couldn’t keep it out. Could do little about the other five. 6
Michael Smith: Scored his first international goal when he drilled home from 25 yards to give Northern Ireland a shock lead. Got forward plenty but the net result was that the Germans were able to expose the space left behind, with Hector bombing on and putting the first two goals on a plate for Gnabry and Goretzka. 6
Shane Ferguson: Formed an impressive left-wing axis with Saville in the first half, pushing Klostermann back and helping create Northern Ireland’s goal. Made some timely interceptions too but was beaten to the ball for Goretzka’s goal and caught out of position for Gnabry’s second. 6
Thomas Flanagan: Not the easiest place to pick up just your third cap. The Sunderland man started well enough, keeping a close eye on Goretzka but was outmuscled by Gnabry for the striker’s third goal. 5.5
Craig Cathcart: Almost scored an inadvertent own goal when he deflected a Hector cross straight at Peacock-Farrell. Couldn’t stop Brandt from scoring Germany’s sixth as the Borussia Dortmund winger skipped to his left and fired home. 5.5
Corry Evans: Started well, making some nice passes as Northern Ireland pushed up, but found himself chasing shadows once the Germans took control around the middle. Replaced in the 65th minute. 5
Steven Davis: Tried to close the space on Toni Kroos but just couldn’t get to the Real Madrid star quickly enough, with Kroos dictating the pace for most of the evening. Tough shift but didn’t stop trying. 5.5
Jordan Thompson: Made a strong start to the game and upset the German rhythm with some well-timed interceptions before spreading the ball wide, where Northern Ireland looked dangerous. But the game largely passed him by once Jogi Low’s men had taken it by the scruff. 6
Paddy McNair: Did well to dispossess Tah 12 minutes in and looked set to put Northern Ireland into a shock 2-0 lead, only for Kimmich to arrive on the scene in the nick of time. 5.5
George Saville: Doubled up impressively with Ferguson down the left in the first half but was forced into a rearguard action, along with the rest of his team-mates. Saw a late effort at goal deflected out for a corner. 6
Josh Magennis: Fought a running battle with Can in the first half, and a better touch would have seen him in on goal when he miscontrolled Smith’s first half cross. Worked hard as always but starved of possession as Northern Ireland chased the game. 6
Conor McLaughlin: Brought on for Corry Evans to add another body to the defence as the Germans poured forward. Did okay. 6
Liam Boyce: Not easy to come into a game when you’re trailing 5-1 to one of the best sides in the world. Back in Germany, the former Werder Bremen man hassled and harried but by then the game was long over. 6
Shayne Lavery: Not on long enough to be rated.
ter Stegen, Klostermann (Stark 65), Can, Tah, Hector, Kimmich, Kroos, Goretzka (Serdar 73), Gundogan, Brandt, Gnabry (Amiri 81).
Goals: Gnabry 19, Goretzka 43, Gnabry 47, 60, Goretzka 73, Brandt 90.
Northern Ireland: Peacock-Farrell, Smith, Cathcart, Flanagan, Ferguson, Davis, Corry Evans (McLaughlin 65), McNair (Boyce 77), Thompson, Saville, Magennis (Lavery 83).
Goals: Smith 7.
Ref: C del Cerro Grande (Spain)