Thursday 29 September 2016

McGovern limits the damage to send North into last 16

Germany 1-0 N Ireland

Sam Wallace

Published 22/06/2016 | 02:30

Northern Ireland’s Michael McGovern stands tall in front of Germany’s Mario Gotze. Photo: AP
Northern Ireland’s Michael McGovern stands tall in front of Germany’s Mario Gotze. Photo: AP

The wait was agonising but in the end worth it as Northern Ireland sealed a remarkable achievement by reaching the knockout rounds thanks to a stunning display against the world champions by a 31-year-old goalkeeper from Enniskillen who spends much of his professional career fishing the ball out the net.

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Michael McGovern was an unlikely hero in a match, as one-sided as any at Euro 2016, in which the man who plays for Hamilton Academical in the Scottish Premiership produced the game of his life.

He was beaten just once in Paris, by a first-half Mario Gomez goal, and for the rest of it defied the German supermen with four stars on their shirts.

Margin

In keeping the margin of defeat down, Northern Ireland reached the second round in third place from Group C after anxiously waiting for the evening game between Czech Republic and Turkey in Group D to produce the right result. A Czech win would have prolonged the pain into today but Turkey's 2-0 victory means Michael O'Neill's side are definitely one of the four best third-placed teams.

They face either Wales in Saint-Denis on Saturday or France in Lyon on Sunday and for the nation of 1.81 million souls that is a thrilling feat.

Oliver Norwood (L) of Northern Ireland and Thomas Muller battle for possession. Photo: Getty
Oliver Norwood (L) of Northern Ireland and Thomas Muller battle for possession. Photo: Getty

To put in perspective McGovern's achievement, Hamilton conceded 63 goals in the league last season on their way to finishing one place above the relegation play-off place and McGovern was in goal for 61 of them. In January he was between the sticks when Celtic beat them 8-1, although those who were there that day said that, were it not for the goalkeeper, it would have been many more.

O'Neill feels his time spent struggling at the bottom of the league with Hamilton gave him the perfect preparation for this daunting date with the world champions.

"Coming into the game, Michael is not stupid, he knows what to expect," O'Neill said. "He plays for Hamilton and makes a lot of saves every week. He is probably worth 15 points a season to his club.

"He is out of contract and hasn't re-signed for the club yet, but there is interest from clubs in Scotland and England. He has now shown what a top-class keeper he is on the international stage and I hope that he gets a top club because he is playing at that level now"

Northern Ireland's Gareth McAuley in action with Germany's Mario Gotze. Photo: Reuters
Northern Ireland's Gareth McAuley in action with Germany's Mario Gotze. Photo: Reuters

While McGovern was the hero in defeat, this was the full Germany experience for O'Neill's team, and it was very hard going. Not for Joachim Löw, Germany II or Germany Lite, an end of group stage compromise like England's Slovakia selection on Monday - this was the full scary monster of the Nationalmannschaft.

Germany compressed their opposition and they asked a series of questions in the first half that became a torrent. Their one-touch passing in or around the box changes the angle and the impetus of an attack in an instant.

In the seventh minute, a flick from Mesut Ozil put Thomas Müller in on goal and McGovern made the first in his series of saves.

Jerome Boateng's searching pass for Özil very nearly opened Northern Ireland up. Then a Sami Khedira drive into the box spread panic and the ball broke for Mario Götze, who forced another fine save out of McGovern. On the Northern Ireland bench this might have been the time to exhale gently and check their watches. The bad news? Twelve minutes played.

Germany manager Joachim Low and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Photo: Getty
Germany manager Joachim Low and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Photo: Getty

Müller hit a post with a diving header before at last O'Neill's men succumbed to another German cavalry charge through the centre of their defence. The crucial point in this move between özil, Gomez, Müller and then back to Gomez was the first-time ball from Gomez to Müller.

When the ball came back to the Besiktas striker from Müller he could hardly miss, and his mis-hit shot deflected over the blameless McGovern.

A goal down and Northern Ireland's immediate priority was not to quickly concede any more, although that was a choice that was rapidly being taken out of their hands. On 34 minutes Götze cut the ball back to Müller and he clattered a shot against the bar.

Yet while there was McGovern, there was always hope and he made a succession of fine saves in the second half. Götze was thwarted so many times that Löw eventually decided he had seen enough and replaced him with Andre Schürrle. The pick of those was a thrust out on 52 minutes when Götze took one on his chest at the back post and tried to drive the ball past the keeper.

At the other end it was a quiet day for the Germany defence. One heroic run from Steven Davis that almost took him to the edge of the German area and a couple of corners was all there was of any note.

With eight minutes left, McGovern made one more glorious save from Gomez's downward header and his team were left to wait as their fate was decided elsewhere. It turned out he had done enough.

Telegraph.co.uk

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