Michael McGovern helps Northern Ireland reach their goal
Goalkeeper in superb form as they restrict Germany to a 1-0 victory to reach last 16
If you spend any time in continental Europe it quickly becomes apparent that many Europeans aren’t intimately familiar with minor details of Irish history such as partition.
One of the Irish journalists was approached by a European colleague who wanted to pick his brains about Ireland.
“We’ve just been doing so many Germany pieces, we need a fresh angle.” What do Germany have to do with it? the Irish journalist wondered.
It turned out that the European colleague meant Northern Ireland, but hadn’t realised there were two separate countries on the island.
So maybe there were a few puzzled faces in the German end when the moment came for the Irish anthem, only for the familiar opening bars of God Save The Queen to be bellowed with lusty abandon by the 15,000 green shirts at the far end of the ground.
The Northern Irish fans had already been singing for half an hour at that stage, though the Uefa matchday production did its best to drown them out by playing the same selection of David Guetta hits that are played before every Euros kick-off. It seems Uefa will do anything to avoid the nightmare of an actual football atmosphere breaking out before one of their games.
Then the game started, Guetta stopped and the fans sang and sang as their players chased and chased.
Moveable wallGermany’s formation is given as 4-2-3-1 but the way they set up in these games is really 2-2-6. Hummels and Boateng stand at halfway marking the opposing striker. The imperious Kroos runs the game from just ahead of the centre circle, using Khedira as a moveable wall to make better angles for his passes. And the full-backs join the attacking midfielders and the striker in a six-man unit at the edge of the opponents’ box.
They attack with a lot of moving parts. They hit passes to the front players at speed and use first-time flicks to change the direction of attack.
Ireland used to play flick-on football in the days of Quinn and Cascarino, but what Germany play is the 21st-century version: quick, low first-time passes with a snookerish precision. You think the attack is going one way and a subtle touch diverts it into the path of an extra runner you hadn’t been paying any attention to.
The beneficiary of these moves is usually Thomas Müller, who is so quick over 10 yards and so good at sensing where the space is going to appear. Within 10 minutes Müller was through for what looked a certain goal but Michael McGovern came rushing out and blocked the shot.
That move set the pattern for the game. Mesut Özil, Mario Götze, twice, and Thomas Müller again were all denied by McGovern. The series of near-misses was both exhilarating and menacing for Northern Ireland. Sooner or later the Germans would make one of these count.
Half-hour markOn the half-hour mark it happened. Müller went through again, but instead of trying to beat McGovern himself he drew a couple of defenders with a dribble and laid it back to Gomez, whose first-time shot went into the net off McAuley.
Northern Ireland were finding it almost impossible to get into the game. They were trying to apply pressure at the most vulnerable part of Germany’s formation, the two-man midfield unit of Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira.
But pressing Kroos, who controls, turns and passes so effortlessly, is a difficult and demoralising task. .
A couple of times Northern Ireland did intercept balls in midfield, but all their attacks ran into the same problem – the inability to get enough men forward in support.
Hummels and Boateng snuffed out every raid.
Afterwards, O’Neill was asked, ludicrously, if Northern Ireland would set aside their defensive approach in the knockout stages. “If the other team have the ball in football, you have to defend,” he said.
“You don’t set your team up intentionally to go out and defend, but you have to be realistic. I’m not going to set my team up for Joachim Löw’s team to beat us 7-0. That’s not much fun for our players, I’m not gonna do that.”
The rest of the game proceeded in the same pattern, with Germany probing but McGovern getting in the way of all the shots they didn’t miss.
Turkey’s win last night ensures Northern Ireland do take their place in last 16.
Özil was named the man of the match by the Uefa technical group, which was a bizarre decision given McGovern’s influence in keeping the score down, and Kroos’s domination of the entire game.
McGovern’s team-mates delivered a more significant verdict. O’Neill revealed that the players had given their goalkeeper a round of applause when he returned to the dressing room. “When that happens, the manager doesn’t have to say anything.”