O’neill proud but frustrated after defeat
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