Germany much too good for Northern Ireland at Windsor Park
World Cup 2018 Qualifying Group C: Northern Ireland 1 Germany 3
THE glamour and brilliance of Germany can dazzle any team but after being caught in the headlights early on again Northern Ireland performed well until conceding a late third goal – and even after that they netted one themselves.
The tireless Josh Magennis was the home scorer, after Sebastian Rudy, Sandro Wagner, and the sensational Joshua Kimmich for the visitors, but this two-game group finale was always really all about Sunday night’s match in Norway.
No one sensible expected anything other than an away win; hoped for something different, sure, but expected, no.
The likelihood always was that Northern Ireland would head to Oslo needing a point to secure a play-off place, unless other results go their way over the weekend.
There were parallels with the reverse fixture in Hannover last October, the Germans netting twice early on, this time through Sebastian Rudy and Sandro Wagner, before the underdogs dug in and refused to be steamrollered.
The outstanding Kimmich did add a late third goal, but again NI ensured only a two-goal deficit when Magennis nodded in during added time.
As anticipated, the fit-again Gareth McAuley replaced the injured Aaron Hughes at centre half-back, but Michael O’Neill made two more personnel changes to the team that had started against the Czech Republic – and a tactical alteration.
It wasn’t a surprise that he went with five at the back, but it was fairly shocking that he selected two centre-forwards in a 5-3-2 formation.
His two unenforced switches were key to those changes, Lee Hodson and Kyle Lafferty coming in for Stuart Dallas and Conor Washington.
Hodson became a right wing-back, with Conor McLaughlin deployed on the right of the central three at the back. Lafferty was joined up front by Magennis, who had started on the right of an attacking three behind Washington last time.
The Germans were nominally playing 4-2-3-1, but given how far forward their full-backs get, it’s more like 2-4-3-1, or even 2-2-5-1.
Then when one of the two supposed holding midfielders scores a ‘worldie’ you know you’re in really trouble.
The home game-plan lasted less than 90 seconds, ripped up by a rocket from Rudy.
As in GAA, one way round a packed defence is over, and the Bayern Munich man latched onto a volleyed clearance from Hodson and fairly lashed it into the top corner as Michael McGovern leapt in vain to his left.
Even the man who, almost two-handedly, almost stopped the Germans scoring in Parc des Princes last summer, could do nothing about that superb strike. Selecting a second goalkeeper might not even have helped.
The ’keeper could do something, and did, about the next German effort, a close range chest from Wagner meeting a Kimmich cross, and the Norwich City net-minder parried it away.
However, he was helpless again when Wagner met a great cross from the raiding Kimmich, only for the ball to rebound back to safety off McGovern’s right post.
Still, the one-goal tally did not last long, only until the 20th minute.
Even when the Germans err, they purr. Wagner failed to control a pass from Thomas Muller into the ‘D’ but whirled round and fired a left-footed shot beyond McGovern’s dive.
“We’re gonna win 3-2…” sang the home fans. It was hard to say what was less likely: Northern Ireland netting three times against the Germans, or the visitors failing to score again.
A half-time rendition of Nessun Dorma by a Celtic tenor only made the Germans feel even happier after their Italia ’90 triumph.
Northern Ireland reverted to 4-5-1 for the second half, with Stuart Dallas coming on for Hodson, and that worked after an initial scare.
German captain Muller forced a fine save from McGovern with a glancing 50th minute header, but after that there wasn’t a great deal to sing about for much of the second half for either side.
Of course, that didn’t stop the home support, as they roared the men in green on in search of a goal.
One almost came courtesy of Washington, on as a replacement for Lafferty, with the burly QPR striker flashing a left-foot off the crossbar after good work by Magennis.
The depth of Germany’s talent pool was illustrated as Manchester City star Leroy Sane came on for PSG’s Julian Draxler, but the sub wasted a good chance.
Kimmich made no mistake when he drilled in after Jonny Evans’s header from a Plattenhardt centre fell to the full-back, with the hosts weren’t done.
In stoppage-time Brunt floated a corner, McAuley nodded the ball back toward goal, and Magennis’s head guided it into the net.
Cue pandemonium, unsurprisingly, after the first goal against Germany for 12 years and the first competitively for two decades.
This result, in his 50th game in charge, balanced out O’Neill’s record, with 18 wins and now 18 defeats, also with 55 goals scored and 55 conceded.
There’s still a little more required for that match tally to reach 53 this year, but despite this defeat Northern Ireland have probably already done enough to give themselves a two-legged shot at reaching Russia 2018.
Northern Ireland (5-3-2): McGovern; Hodson (Dallas, h-t), C McLaughlin, McAuley, J Evans, Brunt; Norwood, C Evans (Saville, 80), Davis (capt.); Magennis, K Lafferty (Washington, 69).
Germany: Ter Stegen (4-2-3-1); Kimmich, Boateng, Hummels, Plattenhardt; Rudy, Kroos; Goretzka (Can, 66), Muller (capt.) (Stindl, 83), Draxler (Sane, 72); Wagner.
Referee: Danny Makkelie (Netherlands).
NORTHERN IRELAND PLAYER RATINGS
Michael McGovern: Didn’t have any chance with the first two goals and saved well from a Muller header – but needs to improve his kicked clearances. 6.5
Lee Hodson: Seemed to start solidly at right wing-back, volleying confidently clear, only for Rudy to wallop in the opener. Did little wrong but was subbed at half-time in a system change. 6
Conor McLaughlin: Initially right of three centre-backs, moved to right-back for second half. Appeared to nutmeg Draxler and beat Plattenhardt in one counter-attack. 6.5
Gareth McAuley: Not tight enough nor quick enough to prevent Wagner’s goal, but strong on the deck when Hummels had a chance in the box, and set up the goal. 6
Jonny Evans: Cool on the ball despite the German numbers up front. Stuck to his task but will be disappointed his half-cleared header led to Kimmich’s goal. 6
Chris Brunt: Struggled early on as Goretzka and Kimmich attacked his flank. Some fine dead ball deliveries as usual, including for the goal. 6
Ollie Norwood: Tried a shot that flew well over early in the game. Not as good in his defensive midfield role as usual, losing possession and getting by-passed. 5.5
Corry Evans: Helped out Brunt after the tough start. Poor control probably cost him a goal in the 40th minute. 5.5
Steven Davis: The skipper stood out for the hosts, always alert for an intercept, smartly launching counter-attacks with neat, pacy passing. 7
Josh Magennis: Started in a front two but moved more to right midfield and delivered a great cross for Corry Evans’s goal chance. Headed in at the end, reward for his hard work. 7
Kyle Lafferty: Some nice link-play but found it hard to get any joy out of Hummels. Weak header when free at back post from a corner. 5.5
Stuart Dallas: Brought on for second half, replacing Hodson, operating at left-midfield and worked hard up and down. 6.5
Conor Washington: Took over up top from Lafferty for the final quarter of the game and struck the bar before almost stretching to score late on. 7
George Saville: The Millwall man made his NI debut as a late sub for Corry Evans but didn’t get into game. 5.5