Monday night’s showdown at the Parc de Princes in Paris will be between two teams that came into this tournament amidst whispers of doubt. Surprisingly, the one team that still has to shoulder those doubts are the world champions Germany.
Following a professional but nervy win over Ukraine and a drab draw against Poland, Germany find themselves at a very similar position to the one after the 2-2 draw with Ghana at the 2014 World Cup. That time, they laboured through till the QFs, recalled Miroslav Klose, and coasted to World Cup victory on the resulting second wind. It seems a similar epiphany needs to be at hand for Joachim Low if his charges are to progress beyond the semi-finals.
For Northern Ireland, a fitful start can turn into a fairytale finish if they manage to take points from Germany and directly qualify for the knockout stages. A sobering defeat against Poland was followed up with a defiant backs-against-the-wall performance against Ukraine ending in a 2-0 victory. Michael O’Neill’s men can realistically hope for a third place finish, but his team are more in the land of dreams than reality for now.
Team News & Tactics
Michael O’Neill has shown he is not afraid to tinker with either formation or personnel in this competition. After a disappointing loss against Poland, the Northern Ireland boss rang the changes, making five adjustments to his side including dropping top-scorer in qualifiers Kyle Lafferty in favour of Conor Washington.
The changes paid dividends as the Northern Ireland team harassed and harangued Ukraine into submission, their high-energy pressing proving too much for the opposition to handle. There’s no reason for the line-up or approach to change from that famous victory.
Northern Ireland will look to key players across the park for inspiration: Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans in defense, Steven Davis in midfield, and Conor Washington in attack. Evans will be tasked with tracking the ethereal, sprightly movements of Thomas Muller; with the Bayern attacker yet to break his Euro duck and raring to right that fact, Evans will need to be at the top of his game. McAuley, the 36 year-old veteran centre back, will be busy dealing with whomever Germany play up front and also with tracking the subtle runs of Mesut Ozil. He also poses a critical attacking threat to Germany from set pieces.
Steven Davis is an underrated midfield powerhouse, as his consistent selection in a quality Southampton side shows. His tireless box-to-box running will be pivotal both in curbing Germany’s midfield conductors and in flooding the box with extra attackers during counters.
Predicted Starting XI (4-3-3): McGovern; Hughes, Cathcart, McAuley, J Evans; Norwood, C Evans, Davis; Ward, Dallas, Washington
Joachim Low’s decade-long tenure as German head coach can be divided into two phases. The first phase was the happy-go-lucky, counter-attack heavy remnant of the Klinsmann era, which was a joy to behold when it clicked but ineffective against opponents that refused to come out and attack. The second (and current) phase is a more proactive attempt by Die Mannschaft to dictate play, which has resulted in an attack-defense dichotomy: when the team defends well, its attack is stunted, and when it attacks intrepidly, it leaves spaces open in defense.
Though not perfected yet, this proactive approach is what Low will go for against Northern Ireland, because Germany will understandably be expected to orchestrate the play and sound out the tempo. The midfield three of Sami Khedira, Toni Kroos, and Mesut Ozil should be retained, and will be looking to feed Thomas Muller, Julian Draxler, and Germany’s front-man at every opportunity.
But the identity of Germany’s front-man is very much up for debate. Mario Goetze has been underwhelming in his two starts as a false nine. Mario Gomez is slower, more stoic, but more effective alternative. A relatively left-field option like playing Andre Schurrle through the middle can also be tried. The bottom line is, in a tournament characterised by striking paucity so far, a good frontman can make all the difference.
In defense, Benedikt Howedes was exposed as a centre back playing at full back against the nippy wingers of Ukraine. With Northern Ireland also looking to press and counter through the flanks, it may be a wise move to recall Skhodran Mustafi and play him at right back. The Valencia man is quicker, more used to being played out of position, and riding the confidence-wave of being Germany’s opening goal-scorer!
Predicted Starting XI (4-4-1-1): Neuer; Mustafi, Hummels, Boateng, Hector; Khedira, Kroos, Draxler, Muller; Ozil; Gomes
Stats & Facts
- This is Northern Ireland’s first appearance at the European Championships
- Northern Ireland have won against Germany only twice in their history, the last of those wins coming 33 years ago
- Northern Ireland have only lost once in the last 13 games
- None of Germany’s goals at the Euros so far have been scored by a striker
Quotes & Prediction
Kyle Lafferty of Northern Ireland says (via BBC), “It’s a difficult match, they are world champions for a reason. They have amazing players, some of the best players and defenders in the world, but if we turn up the way we turned up (against Ukraine), they are going to be worried.
“We have lost one game in 13, so it’s going to be an exciting match and a massive one for us.
“It’s about us getting over the finish line (reaching the last 16), we’re here and we want to stay here.”
Germany attacker Mario Goetze says (via Channel NewsAsia), “Of course we want to have more punch in attack. Both in training and in the analysis we are looking for some solutions but we are in a good position. I don’t expect it to be any goal bonanza. We have to be realistic. Northern Ireland will be thinking about defending until the final minute.
“They will be with many players around the box so it does not matter what skills you have with the ball. It just will not be a walk in the park.”
Final Prediction: Northern Ireland 0-2 Germany
The first goal will be hugely important in this game. If Northern Ireland get the opener, then they will pack the box with great gusto and Germany’s recent attacking ennui will make it tough for them to break through. However, Germany have too much quality and are under the right amount of pressure, and should progress with a win. Thomas Muller will be looking to open his account for the tournament, and tonight poses a great chance to do so.