Germany 6 Northern Ireland 1
Thanks to events in Cardiff the most important statistic to emerge from this match was that Northern Ireland will face Bosnia away in Sarajevo in the Euro play-off semi-final in March. As he heads back to Stoke to continue the day job, the bad news for the Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill is that if the Bosnians exhibit half the ruthlessness in front of goal that the Germans possess he may well be bowing out from a job he has held with much distinction in defeat.
“It was a tough night, to come into a game like this missing players,” he admitted after the game. “At the back of your mind you did fear it might happen.” But even had O’Neill been able to call on stalwarts like Jonny Evans, this was some opposition.
The Germans were clinical in their finishing; Joachim Loew’s rebuild of his side after the 2018 World Cup seems to be going rather well. Not that it started according to assumption. Just seven minutes had elapsed when Toni Kroos’s misdirected header from George Saville’s cross landed at the feet of Michael Smith. To the visible astonishment of the 3,000 visiting fans, the Hearts full back dispatched a shot of laser-driven precision.
Northern Ireland have not beaten Germany since 1983, losing their last eight internationals against them. The reason for the disparity is not hard to fathom. Facing a team brimming with Champions League experience, Craig Cathcart was the only Premier League starter for the visitors. And the way things are going at Watford that might not be for much longer.
It was a tough ask for Northern Ireland to defend that lead for more than 80 minutes. Serge Gnabry, the recent scourge of Tottenham Hotspur, soon restored the expected order, swivelling on the edge of the area and sending a booming shot beyond Bailey Peacock-Farrell. Then, just before half time, Germany took the lead when Gnabry slid in on a cross by Jonas Hector, allowing the ball to squirm to Leon Goretzka who hacked in off the post.
A minute after the restart, it was all over for O’Neill’s men. Gnabry got his second, scooping home Kimmich’s pass. Then he became the third German to score a hat-trick against Northern Ireland when he flicked home after Thomas Flanagan slipped in front of him. It was the Arsenal reject’s 13th goal in his last 13 internationals. He already threatens to be the star of next summer’s finals.
Sadly that was not the end for O’Neill. Goretzka got his second; then, after Loew tried to spare further humiliation by substituting Gnabry, Julian Brandt hammered a sixth in injury time, to make this Northern Ireland’s worst ever competitive defeat.
“The first thing we’ll take from that is that we’ll not play Germany in the play-off,” O’Neill smiled wearily. Frankly it was the only positive available to him.
Germany: Ter Stegen (Barcelona); Klostermann (RB Leipzig), Tah (Bayer Leverkusen), Goretzka (Bayern Munich), Hector (FC Koln); Can (Juventus), Kimmich (Bayern Munich), Gundogan (Man City); Brandt (Borussia Dortmund) Gnabry (Bayern Munich) Kroos (Real Madrid)
Subs: Neuer (gk) (Bayern Munich), Leno (gk) (Arsenal), Koch (SC Freiburg), Ginter (Borussia Monchengladbach), Werner (RB Leipzig), Amiri (Bayer Leverkusen) on for Gnabry 81, Schulz (Borussia Dortmund), Serdar (Schalke 04) on for Goretzka 73, Rudy (1899 Hoffenheim), Stark (Hertha BSC) on for Klostermann 65
Northern Ireland: Peacock-Farrell (Burnley); Smith (Hearts), Cathcart (Watford), Flanagan (Sunderland), Ferguson (Millwall); C Evans (Blackburn), S Davis (Rangers); Thompson (Blackpool), McNair (Middlesbrough), Saville (Middlesbrough); Magennis (Hull)
Subs: McGovern (gk) (Norwich), Carson (gk) (Motherwell), C McLaughlin (Sunderland) on for Evans 65, Brown (Cardiff), McGinn (Aberdeen), Boyce (Burton) on for McNair 77, Lafferty (Sapsborg), Donnelly (Motherwell), Kennedy (St Johnstone), Lavery (Linfield) on for Magennis 83
Referee: Carlos del Cerro Grande (Spain)