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Northern Ireland made to wait as Germany cruise to victory

Michael O’Neill’s men left on the verge of a playoff spot with one game still to play

Germany’s Sandro Wagner celebrates with teammates after scoring their second goal in the win over Northern Ireland in Belfast. Photo: Paul McErlane/EPA

Northern Ireland 1 Germany 3

Joachim Löw had said he is alarmed by the number of quality players rolling off the Bundesliga production line. He will not be the only international manager feeling that concern in Russia next summer after Germany secured their place at the World Cup with a 100 per cent record and a convincing win over Northern Ireland.

Michael O’Neill’s team suffered their first competitive defeat at Windsor Park in more than four years courtesy of emphatic shots from Sebastian Rudy and Sandro Wagner, a close-range volley from Joshua Kimmich, and a further demonstration of the depth of Löw’s resources.

Germany arrived without several established names due to injury but departed with their remarkable unbeaten record in away World Cup qualifiers intact. Their 47th fixture without defeat, a record dating back 83 years, was never in doubt after Rudy’s superb early goal although Northern Ireland rallied impressively after the interval.

That the Germany head coach could suggest this penultimate qualifier had “the air of a final” was testament to the home side’s stunning rise through the world rankings. While the visitors had five players in their starting line-up from Bayern Munich, one apiece from Real Madrid, Barcelona and PSG, Northern Ireland started with Norwich City’s reserve team goalkeeper and two players from League One. Löw replaced Julian Draxler with Manchester City’s Leroy Sané. O’Neill brought on Millwall’s George Saville for his international debut in place of Corry Evans.

The gulf played out in the opening exchanges as Germany sealed their ninth win in nine qualifiers with two fine goals. The important result for O’Neill with a playoff place yet to be confirmed was ensuring their defeat was not by a greater margin before Sunday’s trip to Norway.

O’Neill’s gameplan was based on containment, a ploy reflected in his line-up and the 10 v 6 training sessions designed to replicate Germany’s likely dominance of the ball. It was gone in 80 seconds. Meticulous preparation has been a hall-mark of the Northern Ireland manager’s reign but little could have stopped the stupendous shot that put the world champions ahead from their first attack.

A five-man defence, however, could have done more to prevent the impressive Leon Goretzka reaching the by-line unchallenged and floating a dangerous cross into the heart of the home defence. Lee Hodson’s clearance was unconvincing, sliced straight to Joshua Kimmich on the edge of the penalty area, and the ball was returned in devastating fashion.

Sebastian Rudy met his Bayern team-mate’s lay-off with a pristine half-volley from 30 yards. The ball arrowed into Michael McGovern’s top left-hand corner, kissing the post en route, to leave both sets of players stunned and Northern Ireland’s approach instantly compromised by the midfielder’s maiden international goal. It was the first McGovern had conceded in more than 10 hours, moreover, and the first competitive goal against Northern Ireland in almost nine. It was also Kimmich’s eighth assist of the qualifying campaign. From right-back.

An early lead and a limited threat from the opposition invited Germany to attack in numbers. At times they left only Mats Hummels and Jérôme Boateng in defence while the full-backs, Kimmich and Marvin Plattenhardt, operated as auxiliary wingers. Northern Ireland were besieged and sluggish in their response.

Germany continued to find space on the right and McGovern produced a fine one-handed save to deny Sandro Wagner at close range when the Hoffenheim striker chested another Goretzka cross goalwards. The towering centre-forward also struck a post with a diving header from Kimmich’s right-wing cross but would not be contained for long. Gareth McAuley afforded Wagner too much room when the striker collected Thomas Müller’s pass with his back to goal. He turned on to his left under minimal pressure and struck another fine shot beyond McGovern, this time to the goalkeeper’s right, from the edge of the penalty box.

“We’re gonna win 3-2” sang the resolute Northern Ireland support. The more realistic objective for O’Neill’s team was not succumbing to a heavy defeat that could hinder their playoff prospects. Northern Ireland offered little in attack, they struggled to retain possession long enough, but their one decent opening should have resulted in a goal for Corry Evans. The Blackburn midfielder was unmarked at the back post when Josh Magennis’s cross sailed across the Germany goalmouth. His first touch was heavy but his second left him with only Marc-André ter Stegen to beat. The Barcelona keeper was off his line quickly to smother the danger.

McGovern made an excellent save to prevent Müller converting Draxler’s left-wing cross with a deft header early in the second half. O’Neill had introduced Stuart Dallas for Hodson at half-time and switched to a four-man defence. Northern Ireland looked more comfortable and threatening with an extra body in midfield, although an increase in tempo was also instrumental in their second half improvement.

Conor Washington struck the crossbar having turned Boateng inside the area before Kimmich volleyed in from six yards late on. Magennis’ close-range header in stoppage time, however, was a consolation that Northern Ireland’s recovery merited.

(Guardian service)