I think that’s what you call a gulf in class.
Three-nil was no less than the Germans deserved — in truth it could have been a lot more — yet, despite yielding up the huge bulk of possession to much superior opposition, Ireland were entitled to feel a tad regretful at the end that they hadn’t taken at least one of a few inviting chances on the night.
No disgrace then, but no new post-Trapattoni dawn either, albeit that no serious analysis of Irish limitations in Cologne can fail to take account of the fact that most teams in the world would find themselves on the back foot against the Germans in their own backyard.
However, caretaker manager Noel King did actually out-Italian the Italian in one respect by declining to use any substitutions at all, ending the night — as he had begun it — by raising a few eyebrows.
The first surprise had been the deployment of personnel in his 4-2-3-1 formation. Marc Wilson and Darron Gibson screening the back made sense but Glenn Whelan on the right side of a midfield three was, to say the least, unexpected. In the centre was James McCarthy, looking to combine defensive duties with a number 10 role, while to his left the return of Kevin Doyle made it clear from the off that David Forde and his defenders would be seeking to find his head with the long ball at every opportunity. In the absence of the injured Robbie Keane, the lone frontman duties had to be shouldered by the comeback kid, Anthony Stokes.
Trying to narrow the pitch, crowd the midfield and defend in numbers, Ireland quickly reverted to 4-5-1 in the face of early German possession as the whole stadium awaited the first serious test of the inexperienced central defence of Ciaran Clark and Damien Delaney, flanked at full-back by captain for the night Seamus Coleman on the right and Stephen Kelly on the left.
In fact, it was some enterprising play on the counter which saw Anthony Stokes get a sniff of a chance after a fine ball from Darron Gibson and Ireland force the game’s first corner after seven minutes, giving the tight wedge of travelling supporters in the corner behind Manuel Neuer’s goal something to cheer about.
Unfortunately for the visitors, their early good work was undone in a cruel way after only 11 minutes. Stokes, immediately under pressure having dropped deep to pick up the ball, saw an attempted pass intercepted by Philipp Lahm who moved the ball forward to Sami Khedira. The Real Madrid man’s scuffed shot didn’t seem to possess too much threat but a significant deflection off Clark left Forde entirely helpless and gave the Cologne crowd the lead.
Doyle was working hard off scraps and Irish heads certainly weren’t dropping, but there was a sense that Germany were playing well within themselves and could easily go up a gear or two if required, especially with Lahm continually finding acres of space down the right in the absence of orthodox Irish wide men.
Coming up to the half-hour mark the game had already taken on the form of attack versus defence, the green shirts penned back as the Germans passed and probed but failed to penetrate the resolute Irish wall. However, with Ireland wingless but hardly wonderful and Stokes increasingly isolated further up the pitch, it became harder and harder for the visitors to find a way out of their own half.
Kevin Doyle had been manfully double-jobbing as an extra full-back to try and curb Lahm but in the 35th minute the German captain’s perfectly clipped cross was met with a firm header from Andre Schurrle which produced the first of two top class saves in quick succession from David Forde, the second a terrific tip over from a Thomas Muller rocket.
The Mexican Wave which rolled around the stadium told you that the home crowd felt it was now only a matter of time before their team put the matter beyond all doubt but stout Irish resistance coupled with a certain amount of German profligacy kept the damage to a minimum going into time added on.
But then, just before the break, came a moment that was so close to defining the concept of a goal against the run of play, as Ciaran Clark’s looping header from a Glenn Whelan cross came back off the bar with Neuer stranded. Unfortunately, with panic suddenly enveloping the hitherto serene German defence, Stokes was unable to make contact with the rebound as the goal briefly gaped.
The Celtic man began the second half as if personally determined to atone for his miss, getting an early shot away and then forcing a corner which ended with James McCarthy firing over the top. Five minutes later, a great first time ball from Whelan put Stokes clear but, with Neuer off his line and the goal unprotected, the striker’s effort from wide on the left flew harmlessly over the top.
Normal service was resumed, however, as Germany hemmed Ireland back again, and the sustained pressure resulted in a second goal in the 57th minute when a lofted pass from Toni Kroos put Andre Schurrle in behind the Irish defence and, with Stephen Kelly playing him onside, a swivel and shot from the Chelsea man put Germany two ahead.
The hosts were in cruise control with 20 minutes still left to play, the Irish puffing hard in the face of opposition who were entirely in their comfort zone. But to the visitors’ credit, they weren’t entirely lacking in positive purpose themselves, one extended — and very welcome — passage of composed build-up play ending with Neuer forced into a rare save to deny Stokes.
David Forde was still by far the harder working goalkeeper on the night, however, and had to be grateful to his woodwork when it kept out a thunderous strike by Jerome Boateng with seven minutes left on the clock.
That still left enough time for Mesut Ozil to come within a whisker of scoring, another chance for Stokes to make it one for Ireland and a terrific Neuer stop to deny a Ciaran Clark header before, with almost the last kick of the game, Ozil finally got his reward, the Arsenal man finishing with aplomb to make it three for Germany and signal the start of the qualification party in Cologne.
Next up for Ireland, a lot more of the usual soul-searching and the visit of Kazakhstan, for which Anthony Pilkington will not be available having withdraw from the squad with a hamstring problem.
Germany subs: Max Kruse for Sami Khedira (80) Mario Gotze for Andre Schurrle (85) Sidney Sam for Thomas Muller (87).