Northern Ireland make historic progress

Northern Ireland 0 Germany 1: Defeat on the night for Northern Ireland but it was one that ended with history being written as Michael O’Neill’s side advanced to the knockout stages of Euro 2016 thanks to the heroics of Michael McGovern and a Turkish win in Lens.

The Enniskillen man plucked five saves from the top drawer to help the North maintain a neutral goal difference in Group C; that left them within touching distance of the last 16 as Turkey and the Czech Republic kicked off an hour or so later.

A win for the Czechs would have left the North awaiting today’s results before learning of their fate, but McGovern’s astonishing exercise in damage limitation meant Turkey would have to win by four goals if they were to be the side to deprive them.

They only managed half that.

It made for a long night of arithmetic, but the result in Paris had already clarified matters for the Republic of Ireland who knew even then that a win against Italy in Lille tonight will see them through to the knockout stanza.

For Michael O’Neill and his team, all that uncertainty is a thing of the past.

“We even watched the game [Monday] night and we were willing England to score,” said O’Neill. “Unfortunately, they didn’t. That’s the nature of the tournament, there are so many permutations and so many opportunities for the teams right up until the final group game to qualify.

“We have done our bit and got our three points. Ideally we would have got four. We have scored two and conceded two and, given the nature of our group and the quality of teams that are in our group, we have done remarkably well and our players deserve the opportunity to play in the round of 16.”

Their reward? Either a date with Wales in Paris or a dance with France in Lyon.

O’Neill, after making five changes and demoting Kyle Lafferty to the bench against Ukraine last Thursday, left well enough alone last night. It was no surprise given that 2-0 win in Lyon.

Joachim Low, however, decided this might be a good night to dispense with the ‘false 9’ experiment. In came Mario Gomez up front with Mario Gotze dropping back to the left-hand side of midfield.

The game wasn’t long in slipping into the expected pattern, with the North hemmed in along their 18-yard line and the world champions tasked with poking holes in the rearguard wherever and however they could.

They managed it with some ease.

Laboured for far too long since their triumph in Brazil two years ago, Germany chose Paris last night to deliver one of their best performances since that tournament and it was an exhibition in how to break down a massed defence.

One-touch football was the key.

That, and a willingness to mix play up with sweeping diagonal passes in behind the full-backs that were designed to stretch the defence and keep O’Neill’s side guessing.

It was 1-0 at the break but they registered eight clearcut chances in the first 45-minute spell as they went about ensuring that Poland would not overtake them at the head of the pool on goal difference.

They would have been done and dusted in that regard inside half-an-hour were it not for McGovern who has been excellent across the entire group stage and who denied both Thomas Muller and Gotze inside the first dozen minutes.

Yet even McGovern needed help. Lots of it.

Muller found both post and crossbar with two other attempts, Toni Kroos sent one shot skimming inches past a post and both Mesut Ozil and Gomez found fresh air with the goal at their mercy.

It was incessant pressure and the breakthrough came on the back of a decent enough spell of possession from the North who were depending on Steven Davis to scavenge for scraps in midfield and Conor Washington to run his legs to stumps up front.

Muller made it, taking a pass from Gomez and rounding goalkeeper and defenders before, on finding his back to goal, passing back to the Besiktas striker to squirm a shot to the net via a defender’s leg.

Jens Lehmann, speaking on the BBC at half-time, said Northern Ireland were “getting an education” — a more resonate phrase would be “taken to school” — and yet McGovern continued to dole out the goalkeeping lessons after the intervals.

Three more stops — from Gotze, Sammy Khedira, and a Gomez header — continued to frustrate the Germans, whose foot came ever so slightly off the accelerator as the evening went on and Poland failed to add to their own one goal.

Yet Germany had other opportunities besides.

Gotze sent one close-range shot the wrong side of a post and Gomez was inches away with his studs with yet another as the game wore on and the Northern Ireland supporters maintained a serenade as astonishing as McGovern’s display.

Rarely has defeat been more heroic. Or rewarding.

NORTHERN IRELAND:

M McGovern; A Hughes, G Macauley, C Cathcart, J Evans; J Ward, C Evans, S Davis, O Norwood, S Dallas; C Washington.

Subs:

K Lafferty for Washington (57); J Magennis for Ward (70); N McGinn for C Evans (84).

GERMANY:

M Neuer: J Kimmich, J Boateng, M Hummels, J Hector; S Khedira, T Kroos; M Ozil, T Muller, M Gotz; M Gomez.

Subs:

A Schurrle for Gotze (55); B Schweinsteiger for Khedira (69); B Howedes for Boateng (76).

Referee:

C Turpin (France).

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