Jerome Boateng. In the 81st minute. With a speculative swing of his right boot from outside the Irish area. Not a particularly obscure version of Cluedo, but the source, time and manner of Germany’s first shot on target against Ireland tonight in the Aviva.
The world champions only managed a further two shots on target as they sought in vain to cancel out Shane Long’s 71st minute opener – Ireland’s second, and final, shot on target of the night, by way of comparison.
This was, therefore, a tight game of few chances on the surface. But that certainly didn’t seem a likely final synopsis after the first 20 minutes – in which Ireland’s narrow 4-3-1-2 formation surrendered the flanks to Germany and looked completely at the mercy of the cutback.
Within seconds of the first whistle, Marco Reus found himself in behind Irish right-back, Cyrus Christie, only to see his resulting low cross intercepted at the back post by Stephen Ward of all people (statistically the worst player at Euro 2012 according to WhoScored.com).
This was a recurring theme during the game’s first quarter, as Ireland’s diamond midfield granted Germany’s full-backs the freedom of Dublin – particularly right-back Marcus Ginter, as Jonathan Walters was sporadically tracking Hector on the other flank.
Ginter’s 8th minute cutback to Reus required an important block from Cyrus Christie in the Irish area to repel the threat. But only briefly – Boateng should have scored with a free header from the resulting corner. Ginter struck again from the byline after 15 minutes, only to be foiled by a vital sliding interception from Richard Keogh in the six-yard box.
The other flank produced chances for the Germans too, particularly when Walters didn’t track Hector – leaving Christie vulnerable to the 2-on-1, as Hendrick struggled with the positional requirements of a right-sided shuttler. One such overload saw Reus get in again in the 13th minute, before pulling it back to Gundogan for Germany’s best chance of the half. John O’Shea was equal to it. Another similar overload resulted in Mesut Ozil finding the net – albeit from an offside position.
After the 20 minute mark, Ireland seemed to better get a grip on the German wide threat, with Robbie Brady getting closer to Ginter from his left-of-diamond position and Walters tracking Hector with greater regularity. Germany only created one further chance – when James McCarthy, the game’s top tackler and arguably Ireland’s standout performer, lost Thomas Muller for once, allowing the Bayern forward to cut it back for Ozil at the far post. Shay Given’s last act was to watch the Arsenal man’s Romeo Sensini-esque rolling effort go wide, before making way for the man who would provide the night’s only assist.
Ireland, with less than 30% of the possession, were always going to find it difficult to get number ten, Wesley Hoolahan, on the ball between the lines to create chances for their two strikers. One of those strikers, Daryl Murphy, represented a surprise selection tonight – presumably with a mind to Germany’s weakness at set-pieces throughout this qualifying campaign. The Ipswich target man certainly wasn’t going to see any service from open play anyway, as Ireland’s full backs struggled to get forward to provide the necessary width. He did, however, have Ireland’s first chance of note of the night, on 64 minutes, after good pressing from the tenacious Hoolahan saw Gundogan robbed. Murphy shot wide from range and was quickly replaced by the match-winner, Shane Long.
The manner of Long’s goal – a route-one punt from Randolph that the German defence lost track of – was eerily reminiscent of a far more intentionally fashioned chance from Manuel Neuer earlier in the half. Reus collected and crossed brilliantly for Schurrle to sky at the far post.
O’Neill reorganised his troops into a 4-1-4-1 after the goal, with Hoolahan wide left and Walters permanently wide right, to see out the game – issuing them frantic time-wasting instructions from the touchline to boot. Apart from Muller’s unbelievable miss from Hector’s 78th minute cutback and the aforementioned first three German shots on target, Ireland saw it out pretty comfortably indeed – with Jonathan Walters winning a number of aerial duels on the right flank to tee up Shane Long and momentarily release the pressure.
Robert Lewandowski’s injury time equaliser in Hampden leaves Ireland needing to win in Warsaw on Sunday to qualify automatically. Who’d bet against them now?