One wonders how many of us actually stop and really think about the actualities around tonight’s match v Germany. From the fixture releases many of course looked ahead to see when we would host the world champions. Many also wondered would it be a dead rubber or a key opportunity in the drawdown of the group to try and qualify.
The fact that we are already sure in second place with two games remaining must never be taken for granted by the fans. Four short years ago we were losing in places like Luxembourg. To be fair I don’t think they do and have absorbed the nice balance of still punching above their weight whilst fearing nobody. A good place to be. Further factors should be aired. Two goals conceded is a fearsome statistic – knowing you have moats, iron doors, minefields and barbed wire behind you before you even see our net is a huge piece of mental confidence to have, on and off the pitch.
Since those last two goals in Hanover we have gone about our business with a routine efficiency that is bewitching, if routine efficiency ever can don such a cloak. The away performance was iffy against Azerbaijan and we did huff and puff a bit in San Marino, but the six points harvested come to teams who have belief, patience and very simply, the fortune that is the flip side of not conceding goals. The home games against the teams in our group have come and gone with little fuss. A couple of two nils against the stronger teams and two four nils against the weaker sides are the sort of results that very steady teams put down. Move along now, nothing to see here.
But there is plenty to see really. The trick is to let the opposition see it after we have played them. So as Chris Brunt says this match is a “bit of a free hit”. Maybe, but I don’t think the manager wants the roll to stop by allowing any breathing space in this canter through Europe. We still probably could do with a point or two and do not want any nasty stings at the end of the campaign.
The ghost of previous matches against Germany will come into play, and why not. We have had as interesting a story with them as England over the years. I remember Pat Jennings having his epitaph written nine years before he finally did retire following a 5-0 deficit in 1977. An Oliver Bierhoff hat – trick at Windsor in the late nineties saw us off pretty sharpish and also a one hundred and twenty – fifth birthday 4-1 defeat in 2005 blew our candles out.
But in Ulster logic, our results count double and we had three memorable draws through the nineties. Of course the home and away 1-0 victories in 1982 and 1983 are part of our history as is the remarkable stoicism in the 1-0 Paris defeat last year. That game plus the more recent encounter are very relevant insofar as the second one showed we had learned a lot from the first game. Yes, it could be argued that we did concede two early goals in the Hanover game and Germany relaxed, but I felt that our manager had studied hard and thus the team was a more potent force second time round.
It is a game both teams can play without pressure and thus a different complexion could throw up something interesting. The technical ability and player movement of the Germans is second to none and the NI team will be drained mentally and physically dealing with this. The Germans are missing Manuel Neuer, Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira, Gomez, Goetze , Hector and Werner but our load is still as heavy. However the Windsor factor will play a part and also the confidence the team have added to their armoury since the Euros. We simply are a better team without the ball than with it. Several players have now much more experience and international know – how, particularly Conor McGlaughlin, Josh Magennis, Stuart Dallas and Conor Washington.
The team have had several of their core out injured throughout the series and this continues as we speak. This however has only strengthened the team as they have carried on regardless or to put it simply, have been emboldened by the experience. That said, the return of Corry ‘energy force’ Evans in midfield and ‘far from Stealth bomber’ Gareth McAuley are very welcome.
There has been discussion about six of the team (J and C Evans, Dallas, Davis, Norwood and Magennis) being on yellow cards and whether to rest them or even have them earn a yellow. I expect O’Neill not to pay too much attention to this. Most of our players are well capable of avoiding a card if they need to in the forthcoming two games. He may wish to consider the play – off situation where he might want to use ‘the full extent of the squad’ for the games and I am sure that will be an interesting changing room discussion. Insert your own wink if you feel the need. Aside from card issues there will be some very tired players after the game. Norwood, Dallas, Brunt, McAuley and Ferguson have had sporadic and interrupted club game time recently so this will be considered with Oslo pertinent. But pragmatism will surely play its part and things all round will be clearer at ten pm on Thursday night.
I would expect the same team that started against the Czechs to feature with McAuley in for Hughes essentially preserving the 4 -1 – 4 -1 shape that is flexible and hard to bend. Many will look at this match with interest but the manager will take the benefits on offer from it and continue on. I’ll be brave and suggest a 1-1 draw.