You could say that Northern Ireland’s qualifying campaign for Euro 2020 has been a bit like a video game.
Estonia and Belarus, Level 1, negotiated with maximum points. Now for Level 2, Germany and Holland. It’ll be a bit tougher, but we’ll have four lives to use. If we can get a high enough score, we will progress to Level 3 – Euro 2020.
When you look through the instruction manual, Germany and Holland both have weaknesses – They both came into this campaign on the back of two major failures.
For Holland, it was failing to reach the last two major tournaments, not even reaching the Play-Offs.
Germany’s recent failure is a bit more relative. 2018 was ein annus horribulus for them, with relegation in the UEFA Nations League coming on the back of elimination at the Group Stage at the World Cup in Russia.
A lot of countries can only dream of being that rubbish.
If 2018 was ein annus horribilus for Germany, the early games of 2019 were ein annus bouncenbachken, with three wins out of three going into the September games, including an 8-0 win over Estonia.
That winning run came to an end on the Friday before that with a 4-2 home defeat by Holland, a result that generated as many groans in Belfast as it did in Berlin.
The theory being, with Germany already winning in Holland, it would be better for them to win this game. At worst, it would essentially set up a two legged Play-Off between Northern Ireland and Holland for the other qualifying place.
Northern Ireland prepared for this game with a dull friendly win over Luxembourg. It wasn’t ideal to have a match before this game, but UEFA rules stated they had to play a friendly when they weren’t in group action.
You’ve heard the phrase “Fixture fulfilment” in relation to end of season League matches, Northern Ireland’s match against Luxembourg literally was that. I gave it a miss, though I did enter competitions for a free ticket though.
I can’t help it, I like free things, but I don’t want to join the DUP in order to get them.
Within ten seconds of the kick-off, Germany already had Northern Ireland stretched, a long punt from kick-off causing some concern for Northern Ireland’s defence.
They managed to see it out, managing a better start than they managed the last time Germany visited Windsor Park, and found themselves 1-0 up just over a minute into the game.
In fact, it was Northern Ireland who had the first chance of the game with six minutes on the clock, when a stray German pass played Conor Washington through on goal.
A poor first touch allowed Manuel Neuer to get out and make himself big and block the shot. He should have scored. On an evening when clear opportunities could be rare, you have to take them.
If Northern Ireland had went 1-0 up early on, who knows how the rest of the evening would go.
It was clear early on that Germany’s players were unsettled by the atmosphere, and the fact that Northern Ireland players were first to every loose ball.
It looked the sort of night that could have been perfect for Paul Smyth to come on as an impact sub late on if the game was in the balance, but frustratingly, he was missing through injury.
Germany’s first attacking moment of note saw Craig Cathcart slice over his own crossbar after Jonny Evans lost possession. For a brief moment, there was a worry it was going in. Northern Ireland were able to easily clear the German corner.
Who got to the ball first? Craig Cathcart.
Germany’s next moment of frustration saw a long range shot blocked by George Saville full on right in the face. Ouch.
Right at the end of the half, it looked like Northern Ireland were going to have the lead when Neuer parried a cross to Washington, who couldn’t get his feet into position to put it into the empty net, before a combination of defender and keeper cleared the danger for Germany.
Immediately on the counter, Timo Werner was denied by a point blank save from Bailey Peacock-Farrell.
Even though Northern Ireland were holding their own, and could justify their claim to be at least level at half-time, Peacock-Farrell was still having work to do.
Not as much work as Michael McGovern had to do when the sides met at Euro 2016 though.
Unfortunately, it all unravelled within two minutes at the start of the second-half, when Marcel Hastenberg spectacularly fired home to put Germany 1-0 up, undoing all of Northern Ireland’s good work in the first-half.
The goal deflated Northern Ireland, both on the pitch and in the stands.
Michael O’Neill responded by bringing on Gavin Whyte for Niall McGinn. It almost brought it’s reward when he got past a couple of defenders to cross for fellow Crusaders old boy Stuart Dallas, who fired agonisingly wide.
He probably should have passed it to Gary McCutcheon or Timmy Adamson instead.
Michael O’Neill made two further subs as his side looked for an equaliser, bringing on Josh Magennis and Shayne Lavery.
It’s not often that Northern Ireland can bring on one of the top 20 goalscorers in that season’s UEFA Cup from the bench.
The biggest thing that gave Northern Ireland fans hope as the game entered the final minutes was that they had scored late in their previous four games to either clinch or win the game.
Unfortunately, the late goal came for Germany, when Serge Gnabry squeezed home from a tight angle.
Within seconds, the game was over officially, having been over theoretically.
Northern Ireland pushed Germany all the way to the very end, but it’s points they need, not plaudits.
By getting points on the board early on, it meant Northern Ireland set down a challenge to Holland.
Holland responded with a win in Estonia, with Estonia unable to repeat their 2-2 draw against Holland in a World Cup Qualifier in 2013.
Now we are pinning our hopes on Belarus repeating their 1-0 home win over Holland in a European Championship Qualifier in 1995.
Of course, we can help ourselves in the double header against Holland in October and November.
Normally, finishing 3rd would be good enough for a Play-Off, but that is not guaranteed due to the UEFA Nations League.
I have a horrible feeling we are going to be royally screwed over by this nonsense. Yet, there are idiots in our support who told us it would help us qualify.
In order to avoid this, we need lots of countries in Pot 1 and Pot 2 to qualify automatically. That is happening in most groups, thankfully.
This might not be the only time I see Germany play in Euro 2020. I’ve booked a few days in Bray to base myself for the Last 16 match at Lansdowne Road. That will be the winner of the group based in England and Scotland v the runner-up of the group in Germany and Hungary.
The night before that is the Green Day/Weezer/Fall Out Boy concert at the RDS, so could be a double header if you’re that way inclined. Might charge a Green Day fan to sleep on my hotel room floor.
When i’m there, I plan on walking up Bray Head on the Tuesday before going to the football. All I need is a ticket for the football.
I’ve booked a few days break in November for Vilnius in Lithuania. I was looking for a (early) Monday to (late) Wednesday getaway or a (early) Wednesday to (late) Friday trip. There were no routes from Belfast that offered these times.
I narrowed it down to Vilnius or Waterford, but for £160, Vilnius was too good to turn down. Don’t worry Waterford, i’ll still have you in my mind to visit you again.
I was hoping to go in October and take in the Euro 2020 Qualifier between Lithuania and Serbia. Unfortunately, the dates of the flights didn’t suit.
I don’t think there’ll be any football on while i’m there, but you don’t need football to enjoy somewhere though it does help.
The options from Belfast are now reduced with Ryanair and Aer Lingus pulling some flights. What’s the point in shiny blue passports if there is nowhere to go?
Funnily enough, I was looking at Malaga as a short visit/football trip.
It is worth pointing out that Brexit won’t restrict our travel opportunities, mainly because there’s fuck all options out there anyway from Belfast.
At least the bridge from Northern Ireland to Balamory will be handy for the Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers Cup if Linfield decide to play in it again.
Linfield could have been playing Raith Rovers, could have had a short stay in Edinburgh for that and walked up Arthur’s Seat.
And finally, Linfield’s away match against Institute has been moved to a 1pm kick-off. Not too unhappy with that, means there’ll be less of a rush to get back for Northern Ireland v Holland that night.
Before then, is the away game against Holland in Rotterdam, where due to it’s close proximity to Amsterdam, Northern Ireland will have a decent sized support.
The match could be in Rotterdam or anywhere, Liverpool or Rome. When we go to Rotterdam, we’ll need to bring three points home.