Northern Ireland 0 - 1 Germany: O’Neill’s men into last 16

Northern Ireland goalkeeper Michael McGovern is at full stretch to deny Germany at the Parc des Princes.  Picture: Clive Mason/Getty Images
Northern Ireland goalkeeper Michael McGovern is at full stretch to deny Germany at the Parc des Princes. Picture: Clive Mason/Getty Images
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There are worse ways and places to advertise being available for hire than to play the game of your life in the Parc des Princes.

The narrow margin of defeat was crucial, sealing Northern Ireland’s place in the last 16. How Germany did not score more is due to a mixture of poor finishing and a performance from McGovern that doubled as a show-reel for potential employers.

The highlights were a block from Thomas Muller that came as early as the seventh minute and left McGovern feeling sore in a very tender place. A few minutes later he made another block from Mario Gotze that underlined some serious intent on the 31 year-old goalkeeper’s part. But he left the best until late on, flinging himself low to his left to tip Gomez’s header round the post. Gomez had earlier given Germany a 29th minute lead they tried and failed to build on.

Northern Ireland don’t concede many goals in the first half – only twice, now, in 23 games. The fact they conceded only once all game was a triumph in itself. As manager Michael O’Neill later said: “If we were going to lose the game, then that’s the best defeat we could have had.”

McGovern, whose contract at Hamilton Accies expires this week, could not have done more to impress potential suitors – nor done so in a more high profile setting. There seemed genuine admiration from Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer when they swapped shirts at the end. It isn’t fanciful to wonder whether he will keep the jersey as a souvenir of a superb goalkeeper performance – maybe even frame it. There must surely be grounds for a charge of bias to be made against last night’s Uefa technical expert, the German Steffen Freund. The former Leicester City midfielder was once nearly strangled by Duncan Ferguson during one game versus Everton and clearly the momentary lack of oxygen has damaged his senses.

He chose to be swayed by statistics such as a 99 per cent passing accuracy rate when selecting Mezut Ozil as man of the match. But really, for any non-German, there was only one contender. Even Joachim Low expressed admiration afterwards.

“Had you heard of Michael McGovern before this tournament or before this game even?” the German head coach was asked by an American journalist. Just in case Low hadn’t, he helpfully added: “He is the Northern Ireland keeper.”

Low narrowed his eyes slightly beneath that clump of raven black hair. “Of course I have heard of him before, we analysed the opposition. I have to compliment him. He showed great reflexes.”

McGovern was beaten only once – by Gomez’s winner. But the fact this is all Germany could point to in terms of tangible reward after relentless pressure was everything anyone needed to know about McGovern’s performance.

He kept Northern Ireland in the game. Their fans kept up an almighty racket throughout last night’s clash in Paris. They willed on their plainly out-classed heroes.

Their heroes did not let them down, certainly not in terms of endeavour. Neither did the fans let anyone down and remained in the Parc des Princes long after the final whistle, despite the fact their team’s fate still hung in the balance. Qualifying for these finals was hard-earned. No one, it seems, is going to tell these supporters when it is time to go home.

Germany made two changes, including bringing in a more orthodox striker in Gomez for his first tournament start since Euro 2012.

His goal proved the difference. But McGovern was the reason Germany did not plunder more.

Northern Ireland did not create a chance bar Jonny Evans’ deflected header over the bar. But McGovern seemed determined their goal difference did not dip into minus figures. He was, at times, a one-man obstacle. Even the goal the Germans did score was a slightly messy affair that took a nick off Gareth McAuley’s leg while McGovern lay flattened by one his of his own defenders.

Muller had run into the box and after being closed down, pushed the ball back to Gomez, who side-footed it in the net past ruck of bodies. It’s one to tell his grandchildren – the night he beat McGovern.

But there’s no point trying to claim Northern Ireland were hard one by. Indeed, a one- nil loss was the best they could have hoped for given how they were pegged back.

The Parc des Princes groundsman is from Ballymena and he must have lamented that only half of his beautifully tended pitch was being used for long spells.

But as the match wore on Germany seemed to accept the narrow victory that still secured them top spot. They will be glad of that – and glad to see the back of McGovern.

NORTHERN IRELAND: McGovern, Hughes, McAuley, Cathcart, Jonny Evans, Ward (Magennis 70), Corry Evans (McGinn 84), Davis, Norwood, Dallas, Washington 
(Lafferty 59). Subs not used: Carroll, McLaughlin, Ferguson, Baird, Grigg, McCullough, McNair, Hodson, Mannus.

GERMANY: Neuer, Kimmich, Boateng (Howedes 76), Hummels, Hector, Khedira (Schweinsteiger 9), Kroos, Ozil, Muller, Gotze (Schurrle 55), Gomez. Subs not used: Leno, Mustafi, Podolski, Draxler, Can, Weigl, Tah, Sane, ter Stegen.

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