Wednesday 7 December 2016

San Marino at home and Germany away are "polar opposites" for Northern Ireland

Published 07/10/2016 | 12:36

Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland have two very different games coming up
Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland have two very different games coming up

Northern Ireland host San Marino before facing Germany in Hannover three days later, so do Michael O'Neill's side have the easiest game in international football followed by the hardest?

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Germany, of course, are the reigning World Cup holders while not only have San Marino never qualified for the finals, the team representing the tiny microstate have not won a competitive match in the 28 years since they joined FIFA.

"These two games are polar opposites," admitted Northern Irish defender Gareth McAuley. "The way we approach each game tactically with be completely different."

The Germans have a formidable record in World Cup qualifiers, having not lost in 22 games since England's memorable 5-1 win in Munich in 2001.

That defeat was only their second World Cup qualifying loss of all time, with the other reverse in Die Mannschaft's 85-game history coming against Portugal in 1985.

They wrapped up the qualifying campaign for the 2002 World Cup with a goalless draw against Finland, avoided the qualifying process when they hosted the 2006 tournament and managed 17 wins and three draws across the preliminaries for the 2010 and 2014 editions.

Historically, Germany - or West Germany between 1954 and 1990 - have won all but 20 of their 85 World Cup qualifiers, drawing 18 and losing just two.

They opened Group C this time around with a 3-0 win over Norway, taking their record since that last defeat to 18 wins and four draws, with 65 goals scored and 15 conceded.

However, they meet a Northern Irish side that entered Euro 2016 this summer on the back of a 12-match unbeaten streak, a sequence that was better than any of the other 23 teams in France.

"Anyone we face we're not really scared or anything like that, we're more excited," midfielder Paddy McNair told Press Association Sport.

"The team's doing so well at the minute it feels like we've been unbeaten in 22 World Cup qualifiers."

In contrast to Germany, San Marino have lost their last 34 World Cup qualifiers, conceding 154 goals and scoring only five, since drawing 1-1 in Latvia in April 2001. That was one of only two points they have picked up in 57 matches.

They did draw with Estonia in qualifying for Euro 2016 but their only win to date came in a 2004 friendly against Liechtenstein.

In drawing just twice, San Marino have the fewest points-per-game return among teams to have played at least 10 World Cup qualifiers - Montserrat have lost all nine of their matches in the CONCACAF region, while Gibraltar opened their UEFA campaign with a 4-1 loss to Greece.

The latter are perhaps the likeliest team to displace San Marino as Europe's whipping boys, with fellow newcomers Kosovo opening with a creditable draw in Finland and Andorra, Malta and the Faroe Islands all having wins to their name.

And if Northern Ireland's strikers need any encouragement about their first opponents this weekend, they only need to look at San Marino's last two away games when they have conceded 17 times in defeats to Switzerland and Croatia.

"It is a must-win game," admitted McAuley. "I'd expect all the other teams in the group to beat San Marino home and away so we are going to have to do that if we're going to give ourselves any chance."

Press Association

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