Never mind Will Grigg’s On Fire it was Thomas Müller lighting up Paris as Germany confirmed their advance to the second stage. How the Bayern Munich striker has failed to register a goal in Germany’s three games to date is a mystery, for with a bit more luck he could have claimed the tournament’s first hat-trick here.
Northern Ireland were glad he did not for, by virtue of keeping the score down against Germany, they were able to guarantee a last-16 spot thanks to Turkey’s win against the Czech Republic a few hours later. Northern Ireland’s goal difference ended up superior to Turkey’s by two so, as Michael McGovern’s heroics in goal were chiefly responsible for that margin, it was no wonder he was feted at the end of the night.
Michael O’Neill’s team were fighting a rearguard action almost from the start. McGovern was forced into the first save of the game after seven minutes, leaving his line quickly to deny Müller with his legs, and the goalkeeper had to be just as lively four minutes later to close down Mario Götze’s shooting chance on the angle of the area.
“We are a very small nation and we were playing the world champions,” O’Neill said. “The way the game went did not surprise us, we don’t have any players who have experience of European football, so you have to be realistic. We hung in there and gave ourselves a chance. If we had to lose, and that was some team we were playing, that’s the best defeat we could have had. I think we deserve that for what we have done in the three group matches.”
Germany were not at their slickest; they often seemed to delay or misplace the final pass. But Northern Ireland had difficulty breaking out of their own half. Müller floating a cross cum shot across the face of goal and the excellent Mezut Özil finding the roof of the net with a mis-hit shot appeared ominous and, despite the Grigg song doing the rounds midway through the first half, it was Northern Ireland’s defence that was terrified when Müller broke through again and put a low shot narrowly wide.
Jamie Ward did well to set up a shooting chance for himself by dispossessing Götze, but Manuel Neuer was equal to his long-range effort and the black and white attacking waves broke again. Müller showed great courage and athleticism in reaching a cross with a stooping header, only to see the ball strike the foot of a post, yet it was clear Germany could not be kept out indefinitely and in fact they took the lead on their next attack. Özil’s probing ball forward was played into Muller’s path by Mario Gomez, who remained on hand to take a simple return when Muller found his route to goal blocked by McGovern and Aaron Hughes.
With the irrepressible Müller shooting against the bar from close to the penalty spot and Gomez wasting a gilt-edged Özil’s invitation with a feeble shot when he had only the goalkeeper to beat, Northern Ireland’s main concern became reaching the interval without further damage. While finishing the group stage on three points might not be a calamity, anything approaching a rout was to be avoided if possible. Statisticians busily scanning the permutations reckoned defeat by three or four goals would be enough to bring other third-placed rivals back into contention, so considering Northern Ireland could have easily been looking at such a scoreline at half-time they must have been pleased to turn round only a goal down.
“We had a lot of chances, and it is always hard work if you don’t take them,” Joachim Löw said. “We knew Northern Ireland would fight for everything and defend with six players, and that’s what they did. We had 80% of ball possession, we should have found more solutions, but we didn’t concede any goals or stupid fouls, so I am satisfied.”
McGovern did well to prevent Götze, Sami Khedira and Gomez extending the lead at the start of the second half, before O’Neill sent Kyle Lafferty on for the last half hour and switched the formation to what might be termed a flat back six. Theoretically a goal at Neuer’s end might have brought Northern Ireland’s best result for decades, though in the context of the game and the competition it was probably wisest to keep things tight at the back. Just when it looked as though German were content to sit the game out Özil and Joshua Kimmich fashioned an opening from which Gomez brought yet another fine save from McGovern.
O’Neill revealed his goalkeeper received a round of applause from the rest of the squad on reaching the dressing room. “When that happens the manager doesn’t need to say much,” he added. “Michael has been fantastic for us but we all know what he is capable of. He plays for Hamilton Academicals [actually he is out of contract and looking for a new club] so he makes a lot of saves every week.”
As 1-0 defeats go this must have been one of the most satisfying for Northern Ireland. “I’ve never seen a team so happy with a 1-0 defeat,” Götze said. The massed ranks of green-shirted fans who stayed beyond the final whistle at the Parc des Princes to cheer their side were even happier as they finally made their way to the city centre contemplating a likely meeting with France or Wales.