O’neill proud but frus­trated af­ter de­feat

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Football -

It is a mea­sure of North­ern Ire­land’s progress that Michael O’neill was en­ti­tled to re­flect on a “wasted op­por­tu­nity” against Ger­many.

There was a con­ti­nen­tal-sized chasm be­tween the na­tions not so long ago. The dif­fer­ence here was the ab­sence of a cold-blooded striker to take the op­por­tu­ni­ties when the vis­i­tors looked anx­ious and vul­ner­a­ble.

Rather than ac­cept plau­dits for a coura­geous, un­for­tu­nate de­feat, the im­pres­sive O’neill was de­flated. He will re­flect in the com­ing days on the broader qual­ity of the per­for­mance – par­tic­u­larly in a well­matched first half – but the com­pro­mis­ing of qual­i­fi­ca­tion am­bi­tions hurt.

The colour­ful plea was for North­ern Ire­land to “take this gi­ant down to size” as Ger­many made their en­trance into a rowdy Wind­sor Park. It was scant con­so­la­tion to O’neill that, even if Joachim Low’s side could not be slain, they were re­duced to an imitation of what they once were.

“I am proud of the play­ers, but dis­ap­pointed,” said O’neill. “I am hugely dis­ap­pointed to lose the game. When you get the chances we did against Ger­many we have to take them. We could have seen the Ger­man men­tal­ity if they had gone be­hind. It is harder chas­ing the ball when you are be­hind.”

Ger­many showed enough of their class in glimpses to claim the points, earned in a 15-minute pur­ple patch at the start of the sec­ond half dur­ing which Mar­cel Hal­sten­berg mo­men­tar­ily si­lenced Belfast with a spec­tac­u­lar vol­ley. The vis­i­tors could only relax in the third minute of in­jury time when Serge Gnabry dou­bled the lead.

Low’s glo­ri­ous ten­ure could never have been more vul­ner­a­ble than at half-time, at that stage the score­line goal­less due to waste­ful fin­ish­ing by Conor Wash­ing­ton more than the ex­cel­lence of Ir­ish keeper Bai­ley Pea­cock-far­rell. What was most ad­mirable was O’neill’s bold­ness. For a fa­mous re­sult it seemed there could be one strat­egy. De­fend. Sti­fle the game. Play the clock.

Not a bit of it. The Ir­ish tried to pin Ger­many back. Ball boys were in­structed to feed the home play­ers as if they were chas­ing three goals in the sec­ond leg of a knock­out tie. Corey Evans was un­der orders to be Toni Kroos’ nightmare, shad­ow­ing the mid­fielder to pre­vent him get­ting a foot on the ball, let alone look up and seek the next pass.

Low ad­mit­ted his sur­prise, gen­er­ous in his praise for O’neill’s ap­proach. He said: “It was a very dif­fi­cult 90 min­utes against a team that played at­tack­ing foot­ball.”

Ger­many looked be­wil­dered at first. Then ner­vous. There were even hints of fear, par­tic­u­larly when Kroos suc­cumbed un­der pres­sure and gifted Wash­ing­ton his first sight of goal af­ter six min­utes.

For­tu­nately for the vis­i­tors, Manuel Neuer was more alert, smartly rush­ing from his line to en­sure Wash­ing­ton’s an­gle was too acute. This would not be Wash­ing­ton’s last chance. When Neuer dropped the ball on the stroke of half-time, the Ir­ish striker lacked the poise to fin­ish what was es­sen­tially a tap-in. That was O’neill’s great lament from an oth­er­wise struc­turally and tac­ti­cally bril­liant per­for­mance.

Once Ger­many ad­justed, they started to pen­e­trate, Pea­cock-far­rell work­ing over­time as the threat ma­te­ri­alised. The keeper was help­less when the vis­i­tors took the lead af­ter 48 min­utes, Hal­sten­berg’s stun­ner find­ing the top cor­ner.

O’neill had to act and the in­tro­duc­tion of Gavin Whyte re-en­er­gised his side. Ge­orge Sav­ille was inches from equal­is­ing on the hour, but Gnabry stuck af­ter 93 min­utes to seal vic­tory. The ova­tion from the home crowd for the ef­forts of their play­ers was de­served.

This is the be­lief in­stilled by O’neill even when to any neu­tral ob­server it was meant to be a mis­match. Ger­many’s re­cent prob­lems could not hide the fact that North­ern Ire­land pos­sess just four Pre­mier League play­ers; the vis­i­tors were ex­pected to ar­rive here and ooze class.

“You take en­cour­age­ment, but we can’t for­get the op­po­si­tion,” said O’neill. “Look at the pan­els of the play­ers and see where they play their foot­ball.”

The task is much harder for North­ern Ire­land now, but they will not stop believing they can bloody the gi­ants’ noses yet.

Fly­ing high: Serge Gnabry is hoisted into the air af­ter seal­ing Ger­many’s vic­tory by scor­ing their 90th-minute sec­ond goal last night

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