KEIR RADNEDGE in PARIS: World champions Germany, neighbours Poland and Northern Ireland all stepped forward into the second round of Euro 2016 after the concluding two Group C matches.
Spirited Northern Ireland, defeated only 1-0 by the Germans, thought they would have to wait overnight to find out whether they have managed enough to become one of the quartet of third-place ‘lucky losers.’
If supporter volume and loyalty had anything to do with it then they certainly deserved it. Indeed, the happy noise generated by fans of both Irish teams and Wales has been one of the few stand-out features of a group stage comprised of entirely unmemorable football.
The pitches have been another problem. Northern Ireland were assisted in their rearguard action against an increasingly ragged German attack by the treacherous surface in the Parc des Princes which, at the final whistle, was as pock-marked and sliced as a novice class ice rink.
Germany, like England, have not been finding goals easy to stumble across. Coach Joachim Low had experimented with Mario Gotze as a ‘False Nine’ but the scheme proved ineffective.
Gotze has looked short of fitness and out of touch and his attacking partnership with club-mate Thomas Muller had rendered next to nothing. Hence, however reluctantly, Low had been force to revert once more to the orthodox style of Mario Gomez. It certainly made Muller look a different player.
The opening salvoes saw him go close three times – once striking the outside of a post – while his energy also helped earn further opportunities for Mesut Ozil and Gomez in return.
Northern Ireland did manage one sharp break when Jamie Ward forced a low save from Manuel Neuer. Otherwise it was one-traffic and Germany finally took the lead in the 29th minute through Gomez after a neat exchange wth Muller.
It should have been the signal for an avalanche. Instead, as the game wore on, so Germany’s efficiency wound down.
Gotze had a brief vain flurry at the start of the second half and Gomez once headed wide from close range after a shot popped up off keeper Michael McGovern’s gloves.
McGovern had earned his luck. He proved securely defiant in response to a smattering of half chances and by the end the German supporters had been reduced to numb silence while the fans in green enjoyed the sight of their favourites holding the world champions at bay.
Later a thrilled manager Michael O’Neill said: “”It’s surreal. It’s a fantastic achievement. Over our three games we deserve to be in the last 16. Our players will be ready for whoever.”
Simultaneously, in Marseille, Poland defeated Ukraine 1-0 on a 54th-minute goal from Jakub Błaszczykowski. It was enough to lift the Poles level with Germany on seven points but, since their own game had ended all-square and goalless, goal difference came into play and here Germany had a single-goal advantage.
Ukraine, with nothing to play for but pride since they had already been eliminated, left for home with not even a single point or goal to show for their efforts.
# # # #