Germany turn up heat to leave Northern Ireland floundering
Michael O’Neill’s side lose 100 per cent record and now face daunting trip to Amsterdam
Marcel Halstenberg celebrates scoring during the Euro 2020 qualifier against Northern Ireland. Photo: John Mcvitty/EPA
Northern Ireland 0 Germany 2
Out of the jaws of a major predicament and national questioning, Germany appear to be back in business. Joachim Löw’s side recovered from the shock defeat on Friday by the Netherlands in Hamburg to carve out a slender victory against a luckless Northern Ireland, now dislodged from the summit of Group C. Marcel Halstenberg fired home the killer goal three minutes into the second half, before Serge Gnabry added a clincher in added time.
Northern Ireland’s urgency was, at times, tremendous. Conor Washington went close to forging them ahead on a couple of occasions but such bright moments only proved to be symptomatic of their own frustration.
The hosts were, more or less, at full strength, in an understandably cautious 4-5-1 formation, with the captain, Steven Davis, becoming the most capped outfield player for his country, with 113 appearances. And this was a night where the Rangers midfielder had to be especially on red alert, coming up against his decorated counterpart, Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos.
Germany made a couple of changes from their chastening loss against their old Oranje rivals, with Julian Brandt and Halstenberg replacing the injured Nico Schulz and Jonathan Tah – who scored an own goal against the Netherlands – respectively.
A ferocious noise swept across Windsor Park at kick-off, the Northern Ireland fans clearly answering their association’s call to make the stadium as intimidating as possible and, indeed, a “sea of green”.
O’Neill had urged a fast start, and there was no doubting his side settled well, pressing the Germans with immediate intent, although the formidable Niklas Süle was the key defender on hand to thwart any major intent. Conor Washington, in a lone striking role, brought out a smart save from Manuel Neuer from 12 yards. The likelihood was that opportunities were going to be at a premium overall for the Irish.
Eventually, there was something of a response from Germany, the ever-enthusiastic Timo Werner bursting down the right, but Craig Cathcart cleared his drive across goal.
In the 22nd minute, George Saville bravely blocked a 20-yard Joshua Kimmich shot, as the possession began to sway in Germany’s favour.
Chances, inevitably, followed for the visitors, with Northern Ireland somewhat fortunate. First, Kroos saw a goal-bound shot deflected just past the post, before Süle, marauding forward, watched the home goalkeeper, Bailey Peacock-Farrell, scramble the ball clear from a couple of yards. Löw began to see his side dominate, but it was temporary. Sensing the drift in play, Northern Ireland’s waspish work rate – with Saville and Corry Evans in particular – increased to impeccable levels. The injured Matthias Ginter, meanwhile, was forced to go off for Germany, replaced by Tah, in the 39th minute.
There were snapshots of real drama at both ends at the climax of an absorbing first half. Washington was incredibly unlucky to see Neuer recover to save his prodded effort a couple of yards out, after great work on the right and a dangerous low cross from Stuart Dallas. Peacock-Farrell then immediately denied Werner from six yards with an instinctive stop.
Germany showed fresh determination at the start of the second half. It may have taken until the 48th minute to strike – but how they punished Northern Ireland in sublime fashion. The deadlock was broken by a combination of the new personnel of whom Löw has placed his trust. Sweeping forward on the right, Lukas Klostermann delivered an enticing cross that reached Halstenberg at the far post. The RB Leipzig full-back crashed home a left-foot half-volley at the far post, whizzing past even the impressive Peacock-Farrell.
Germany had the possession; Northern Ireland, with admirable energy, retained their intense desire. Dallas somehow managed to drag an angled shot wide when he should have hit the target in the 62nd minute, after a speedy assist by Gavin Whyte, who had just come on for Niall McGinn. This Group C clash simply ebbed and flowed, taut with possibility.
The visitors’ speed of thought and movement increased in the latter stages. O’Neill replaced the busy Saville with Josh Magennis and Washington with Shayne Lavery in a forlorn attempt at pressing the Germans. For all their superb efforts, teasing Neuer at times, the experience of the three-times European champions was sufficient to quell any response.
Bayern Munich’s Gnabry fastened on a Kai Havertz pass, rolling the ball home from close in at the end to seal the points for Germany – a cruel climax in a way for Northern Ireland.