Northern Ireland knew their objective. In truth, Michael O’Neill’s side had likely planned out their exact targets at Euro 2016 when they were drawn in Group C back in December: Defend for your lives against Poland, beat Ukraine, defend for your lives against Germany. Job done. They are through.
The Green and White Army earned much due praise for their valiant efforts in an opening defeat to a superior side. ‘Accomplished, organised, focused’ were the three words used by Sarah Winterburn to describe their performance. They defended for their lives, but could not prevent the killer blow.
Against Ukraine, they were just as resolute, but added a clinical edge. The second target was met, and qualification from the group stages became a reality, a possibility.
Then, the world champions. Germany, a side more dangerous than Poland, an outfit less forgiving than Ukraine. O’Neill’s troops once more fell 1-0, eventually succumbing to an overwhelming and unabating attack. But this was no defensive masterclass from Northern Ireland. Germany carved through them at will at times, only to meet Michael McGovern (and a combination of crossbar or post). Those magnificent fans at the Parc des Princes, as well as the millions in green at home, have their goalkeeper to thank for a potential spot in the knockout rounds. It was he who had more touches (52) and attempted more passes (41) than any of his teammates.
Fewer than 24 hours before, one unfancied country faced a force boasting an array of attacking talent, hoping to maintain a grip of third place in four-team group. Slovakia battled England, with defence beating offence. They were criticised for their reserved approach, but few praised them for their perfectly implemented tactics.
In the Germans, Northern Ireland undoubtedly faced a better opponent – although it was one which had scored one fewer goal than England in their first two games. But this was not akin to the excellent display against Poland. They made fewer tackles (21 to 24), conceded more shots (28 to 18), allowed more shots on target (nine to four) and completed fewer passes (196 to 274) than in their opener. The brilliance of McGovern, who prevented Mario Gomez, Thomas Muller and Mario Gotze, and was beaten only by a deflected Gomez strike, saved them this time, not an ‘accomplished’, ‘organised’ or ‘focused’ performance. Toni Kroos completed more passes than every member of the opposition combined.
As it is, they should hardly be blamed for a below-par performance. The new format of the European Championship has forced the hand of ‘lesser’ nations, of nations who would otherwise have little chance of progression. Of the 24 teams who entered, only eight exit at the group stage. That is of UEFA’s volition, not Northern Ireland’s. There is only one party to blame for the recent sub-standard games.
In the aftermath of the Poland defeat, Northern Ireland were described as ‘plucky’ and ‘brave’. It was a simplistic assessment; they were considerably better than that. In the wake of this loss, similar adjectives will be used. It will once more be a simplistic assessment; they were not that good. To describe them as unfortunate in this game would be to condescend to a side who have set higher standards.