Gareth McAuley has promised Northern Ireland another party at the weekend after playing his part in the rearguard action against Germany that led to Michael O’Neill’s unfancied side earning a last-16 tie against Wales at Parc des Princes on Saturday.
“It’s going to be unbelievable,” the West Bromwich centre-half said. “Our fans against Germany were unbelievable; they just give you something extra to keep going and digging in, so it’s nice to know they have a reward. Hopefully we can give them another party in the next round. This is a great time to be involved in Northern Irish football. A lot of the lads have blossomed after the foundations were laid in the qualifying group. The progression over the last two and a half years has been brilliant.”
Northern Ireland’s progression to the knockout stage came after a prodigious defensive effort kept the overwhelmingly superior Germany down to one goal, though McAuley is the first to acknowledge that going through by a slim margin of two on goal difference was mostly down to Michael McGovern’s goalkeeping heroics.
“It was one of the toughest games of football I’ve ever played – I only enjoyed the first two and a half minutes,” he said. “Germany’s movement is incredible, the timing of their passes and runs, the quality of their forward runners.
“It was impossible to compete at times but fortunately Mickey was on absolute fire behind us and pulled off some incredible last-ditch saves to keep us in the game. I’m going to enjoy watching some of those saves back. Mickey was a bit embarrassed in the dressing room when we gave him a round of applause but it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. He’s so humble, he’s not used to pats on the back.”
While Germany’s Mats Hummels kept a pre-match promise to exchange shirts with Will Grigg – even though the much-hymned Wigan striker has yet to take the field in Euro 2016 – Northern Ireland hero McGovern made sure he got one of Manuel Neuer’s. “He’s a goalkeeper I look up to, up there as the best in the world,” McGovern said. “I love watching him – I actually watch games just to see him – so it was nice to play so well when I finally met him. For me it’s still sinking in.
“I just tried to play my normal game, because that’s all you can ever do. Obviously, you don’t get as much to do as that normally, but this is the top level. My agent is currently sorting me out with a new club and I’m sure games like these won’t do any harm. I just wanted to focus on the experience because it might never come round again. The experience of the Euros has been amazing and it is still going on.”
Northern Ireland’s experience against Germany was a reminder that some teams are better than others at breaking through a massed defence. Joachim Löw was not too worried at the number of missed chances in Paris because so many excellent chances were created.
Thomas Müller hit the woodwork twice and could easily have had a first-half hat-trick, while Mesut Özil was at his masterful best in sliding passes through the middle or spreading them out to the wing. The way Roy Hodgson tells it all teams have difficulty against opponents who set out their stall only to defend, though McAuley has a sneaking feeling Germany have enough in their armoury to unsettle any back line.
“They rarely give the ball away, so it is hard to play on the counterattack against them,” he said. “They stretch you and move you about so much that when you do get the ball you are too exhausted to run in any case. Their wide players would come in off the line and their timing when doing that was incredible, you really couldn’t do anything about it.
“Both full backs are pushed so far on it’s like six v six at the back, and they are comfortable in that position, with Özil finding pockets of space everywhere and pushing balls forward all the time. The timing and the weight of the passes they play – especially Özil and Toni Kroos – is top notch. That’s why they play for the best clubs.”
Northern Ireland players were allowed to rest on Wednesday and spent time at their hotel swimming pool. “They were asking for a day off – we relented,” O’Neill said. “We did have something in the schedule but mentally they needed the day off.”
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