Football/Soccer

Northern Ireland must beware of Germany backlash - O'Neill

Northern Ireland players training for the Euro 2020 qualifier against Germany.
Photo by David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press

Euro 2020 qualifying Group C: Northern Ireland v Germany (Windsor Park, 7.45pm)

THE alarm bells are ringing – for both these sides.

German tabloid ‘Bild’ sounded the ‘Euro alarm’ after Friday night’s 4-2 home loss to the Netherlands but Northern Ireland are also wary of a backlash from the visitors.

‘Some apprehension is in order now’, opined ‘Bild’, and that applies equally to the hosts here.

Manager Michael O’Neill commented: “What we do know is that there will be a reaction and we have to be ready for that reaction.

“When you lose a game in a double-header of this nature you’ve always got to think ‘Do we make changes tactically, do we make changes from a personnel point of view?’

There’s little doubt that it will be a different Germany tonight, both compared to Friday and to that which won 3-1 in Belfast just under two years ago.

Boss Joachim Low boldly ditched the then Bayern Munich trio of defenders Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng and forward Thomas Muller after a disastrous World Cup.

As part of that altered approach Germany, unusually, sat deep and tried to counter-attack the Dutch. Those tactics had brought a 3-2 win in Amsterdam in March and were working again for an hour in Hamburg, but the visitors deservedly emerged victorious, despite a dubious penalty equaliser for the hosts.

“I wouldn’t expect Germany to play as deep against us as they did against Holland,” said O’Neill. “They are normally very aggressive, with the full-backs and wing-backs very high. They couldn’t do that against Holland.”

However, O’Neill also made this pertinent point: “Sometimes the tactical approach is determined by the quality of the opponent, it’s not always determined by how you set your team up.” The Dutch are a very good team.

Northern Ireland’s significant improvement under O’Neill has largely been built on beating sides he terms as “in the middle tier”, rather than “the top teams”.

It’s debatable which category Low’s lads fall into now, yet O’Neill insists: “Germany is still a top side and it’s a massive test for us to try to get something from the game.

“In a way it’s a good thing they are coming off a defeat, this is not a game they will relish - but teams like this react to defeats and we have to be ready for that.

The tactical roles are likely to be reversed tonight, with O’Neill acknowledging that Friday night’s approach surprised him: “It was not what we expected with the way Germany played. They are obviously going to be disappointed with the result.

“When you concede four goals on the night things haven’t gone particularly well…

“There’s a lot of changes in the Germany squad that we played here for the World Cup qualifier for Russia and at the Euros in 2016.

“Possibly this squad doesn’t have the experience that that one did, particularly in the back three.”

O’Neill will no doubt have noted that all four Dutch goals came from their left flank (including one following a corner), so he may target the German right.

Two Tyrone men may be the best bets in that regard, either Niall McGinn or Stuart Dallas, although the latter may be deployed in his recent club role of right-back.

Another attacking avenue would be Jamal Lewis – a cert at left-back – overlapping and delivering crosses or cut-backs, although Germany may target the Norwich City man too.

Much may depend on how long this game stays tight, the score-line close. Northern Ireland conceded early in both World Cup 2018 qualifiers, losing 2-0 and 3-1 respectively.

Assuming that Conor Washington starts at centre-forward, the question is how bold the hosts can be, or try to be.

The German rear-guard is not solid, so a second forward could pose them problems.

Yet as O’Neill cautions, “We could take a very aggressive approach against them but there’ll be times when we will have to defend for our lives.”

Josh Magennis will always provide whole-hearted effort, with the added bonus of offering protection to the full-back on whichever flank he’s on. Besides, there may not be 90 minutes in Kyle Lafferty, hamstring doubt Liam Boyce, or Shayne Lavery, although all could make an impact if called on off the bench, while Gavin Whyte and Shane Ferguson are other wide attacking options.

A home victory tonight, beating the Germans for the first time in almost 36 years, is not absolutely required, but O’Neill admitted that the group scenario had shifted in that direction:

“We would probably have preferred Germany to win the game because it would have given us a ‘free hit’ at Germany and we would have been in a double-header with Holland. That’s not the case now.

“But in many ways it’s opened the group up and we have two double-headers, one against Germany and one against Holland. That’s the nature of how it will be and we’ll have to try and garner as many points as we can.

“That possibly means we’re going to need six points from the four games to give ourselves a real chance. The opportunity to get those six points will be at home, those games will be our best opportunity, so we have to approach the game with that mind.”

Germany are not at their mid-decade level, but that doesn’t mean they should be under-estimated, says O’Neill:

“They have made the decisions they have made personnel-wise because they’re looking ahead, which is understandable, but are they more beatable? Possibly they are, but it doesn’t mean the game is going to be any easier for us and the players know that.

“Look closely at their personnel and there are still some exciting players who can hurt you in the German squad and we’re well aware of that.”

Even without Manchester City’s Leroy Sane, injured in pre-season, the visiting attacking options include Serge Gnabry, Marco Reus, Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, and Julian Brandt.

‘Never write off the Germans’ remains sage advice. The last time they lost a home qualifier in Hamburg (also to the Netherlands, in the Euro ’88 semi-finals), they ended up as World Cup-winners two years later.

Their previous home qualifier defeat (3-0 by the Czech Republic in October 2007) was a precursor to them reaching the following year’s tournament final.

For Northern Ireland to even get to Euro 2020 would be quite the achievement, O’Neill concluded:

“I think if any team from a country of our size can qualify from a group with Holland and Germany in it then they probably deserve a wee pat on the back”.

Northern Ireland (probable): Peacock-Farrell; Dallas, Cathcart, J Evans, Lewis; C Evans, McNair, Davis, Saville, Magennis; Washington.

Germany (possible): Neuer; Klostermann, Sule, Tah, Ginter; Kimmich, Kroos, Can; Gnabry, Werner, Reus.

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