Keeper McGovern puts Northern Ireland into the last 16 of Euro 2016
German strikers thwarted by Michael McGovern as Michael O'Neill's side qualify on goal difference
Northern Ireland have qualified for the last 16 of Euro 2016 after a nail-biting evening in France. The men in green were beaten 1-0 at the Parc des Princes by Germany, a scoreline that would have been a lot worse but for the wonderful display by Michael McGovern, who pulled off a string of outstanding saves - eight in all - to keep his side in with a chance of qualifying for the next stage as one of the best third-place teams.
As McGovern and his teammates recovered from their exertions, Turkey took on the Czech Republic in the final match of Group D and their 2-0 victory means that Northern Ireland are guaranteed to finish as one of the four best-placed third-placed teams and qualify for the knockout phase.
Turkey's win gives them three points in Group D but they, like Albania in Group A, have an inferior goal difference to the Northern Irish meaning that O'Neill's team are through.
They'll now face either France in Lyon on Sunday or Wales in Paris on Saturday, depending on the outcome of the final four group matches tonight.
It's a fitting reward for the Irish after their efforts against Germany, and no one deserves to be still in the tournament more than McGovern. "It was busy today and mentally very hard," admitted the keeper, who is out of contract after two years at Scottish side Hamilton. "We knew every goal was crucial so wanted to keep it at one and maybe nick a goal of our own."
They failed to do that, but the fact they conceded just one goal to the Germans, who finished top of Group C ahead of Poland (who beat the Ukraine 1-0), was just as important with goal difference playing such an important part.
Only Mario Gomez managed to find the net for the Germans, the striker converting Thomas Muller's pass on the half-hour mark for 28th international goal. That effort apart, the Germans were thwarted either by McGovern or the woodwork, with Muller rattling the post and the crossbar.
Describing himself as "immensely proud" of his team, Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill reserved special praise for his goalkeeper. "He didn’t put a foot wrong all night. The players gave him a round of applause when he came in the dressing room and when that happens you don’t really need the manager to say any more.
O'Neill and his squad watched the Turkish game on their way back to the hotel and when the BBC spoke to him minutes after the final whistle, he was still coming to terms with the ramifications of the result, "It's surreal," he exclaimed. "We knew the group would be difficult, but what we saw tonight was a team that refused to be beaten by a big margin and did everything possible to stay in the game. Over the three games we deserve to be in the last 16."
Northern Ireland 2 Ukraine 0.
Northern Ireland are on course to qualify for the last 16 of Euro 2016 after their first win at a European Championship.
The victory over the Ukraine, coupled with Thursday night's goalless draw between Germany and Poland, means Group C is wide open ahead of Tuesday's final round of matches. Only Ukraine have no chance of qualifying for the knockout stage so Northern Ireland are guaranteed at least a third place finish - giving them a good chance of qualification - but a draw or a win in Paris against the Germans would see them progress.
"We have given ourselves a great chance," said manager Michael O'Neill, who made five changes to the team that lost 1-0 to Poland last week. "What we need to do is try to nick a point [against Germany]. We will let the players enjoy this and then the minds will switch to the Germans."
The first-half in Lyon was goalless but four minutes after the restart Oliver Norwood's free-kick was headed home by West Brom defender Gareth McAuley. The huge number of Northern Irish fans went wild and not even a violent hailstorm that forced the two teams from the field for a couple of minutes dampened their enthusiasm.
Ukraine had little to offer in the way of creativity and when Aberdeen winger Niall McGinn scored a second six minutes into stoppage time it capped a deserved victory, and Northern Ireland's first at a major tournament finals since beating Spain in the 1982 World Cup.
"Lots of people said we wouldn't get a point and now we’ve got three," said Gareth McAuley, who at 36 is the second oldest goalscorer in a European Championship (Ivica Vastic of Austria was 38 when he scored in the 2008 tournament). "We've got a tough game to look forward to now, and we've got something to play for - that's what we wanted."
And the Northern Irish might fancy their chances of picking up a point on Tuesday against a German side who laboured to the first goalless draw of the tournament against Poland. The result leaves both sides on four points and guarantees them a place in the last 16 if they can avoid defeat in their final group matches.
Neither side managed a shot on target in a forgettable first 45 minutes and the closest the game came to a goal was when Poland striker Arkadiusz Milik headed the ball wide from point blank range in the opening minutes of the second half."I was quite pleased with our defence but our attack did not really create many chances," reflected German coach Joachim Low. "But neither did they."
Schweinsteiger scores as Germany begin Euro 2016 with win
13 June 2016
Germany 2 Ukraine 0.
Goals from Shkodran Mustafi and Bastian Schweinsteiger got Germany off to the perfect start in Lille.
It was Joachim Low's 88th win as German coach - a total bettered only by the 94 victories registered by Sepp Herberger more than half a century ago - and maintains the world champions' record of never having lost an opening game in the Euro tournaments.
Germany's rivals may take comfort from the fact Ukraine troubled their opponents on several occasions - Jerome Boateng making a brilliant goal-line clearance to prevent a goal - but as is so often the case in major tournaments, they still had the organisation and patience to grind out the win.
Their defence, which looked vulnerable in the first half, tightened as the game wore on. Mesut Ozil also began to find his touch late on, providing the assist that allowed Schweinsteiger to score the second goal, with a crisp half-volley in injury time. It was a sweet moment for the Manchester United midfielder, who has not played since mid-March because of a knee injury.
"I ran so hard in the celebrations that I'm a bit out of breath still," he said at the final whistle. "It's just incredible. After all the injuries - something like this happens."
He added: "It's the kind of thing you can only wish for, but the most important thing is the team wins."
The win puts Germany top of Group C and sets up a mouthwatering clash with Poland in Paris on Thursday. The last time the two met was in a Euro qualifier last October, when goals from Arkadiusz Milik and Sebastian Mila gave the Poles their first victory over Germany in 19 encounters.
Milik was on the scoresheet again on Sunday, beating Michael McGovern in the Northern Ireland goal with a low strike from the edge of the penalty area. The 1-0 win was Poland's first in a European Championship game and goes some way to erase the painful memories of 2012, when, as co-hosts, they finished bottom of their group.
"Victory was our main priority and I have to praise the players for their commitment," said coach Adam Nawalka.
"We are now thinking about the next match against Germany. We are very optimistic about our chances but I don't want to over-analyse whether we are a dark horse or not. We are taking things one step at a time and just want to get good results."
Low also recognised the importance of Thursday's clash, telling reporters: "The Poland game is going to be decisive as both teams have won and the result of that one will shape how the group finishes."
Euro 2016 – Group C preview: Are Germany still a powerhouse?
Northern Ireland will have their work cut out in Group C, where they face the mighty Germans and big hitters Poland and Ukraine.
But if the three historic rivals from the east end up taking lumps out of each other, "Norn Iron" could sneak into the last 16.
Here's how the group looks.
Germany: Odds 4-1To his rival managers, Joachim Low must seem to be living the dream. He can name a powerful spine, topped and tailed by Thomas Muller and Manuel Neuer, and adorn it with a number of creative attacking midfielders. On the face of it, the world champions have plenty to be confident about as they aim for a second successive trophy.
However, as scout Urs Siegenthaler admits to The Guardian, the international game "is undergoing a bit of a change and we're still struggling to catch up".
Low is also missing some key players, including captain Philipp Lahm, and with defeats at the feet of the Republic of Ireland and Slovakia raising question marks, the Germans may not be the powerhouse they are expected to be.
Poland: 50-1Widely regarded as the strongest Polish side since 1982, the presence of Robert Lewandowski alone will get pulses rating. While the Bayern Munich striker hogs attention, Sevilla midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak could prove to be the true pivot. ESPN describes Poland as "dark horses", but the Guardian drops a truth bomb by pointing out that injuries to key players "could be a problem in France".
Ukraine: 80-1They kept six clean sheets in ten games during qualification and proved potent when attacking down the wings, so Mykhaylo Fomenko's side are theoretically capable of upsetting the odds in this group. However, if you nullify their wingers, "Ukraine are quite limited", says ESPN. The squad lacks options up front, meaning their 4-2-3-1 formation will struggle unless they convert their chances.
Northern Ireland: 350-1At their best, Michael O'Neill's side are a solid unit and will take heart from the fact they edged out Romania to top their qualifying group. However, in the tournament itself, their first European Championship for 30 years, their formidable five-man midfield will struggle to atone for their flimsy defence, which is short of credible manpower. Anything but a group exit would "upset the odds", concludes ESPN.
The key players: If he can reproduce the imperious form he showed for Arsenal in the first half of the season, Mesut Ozil will be a hugely influential and entertaining figure in France. However, the playmaker is an erratic beast and could be outshone by Muller and Mario Gomez.
Lewandowski arrives in France having scored 42 goals for Bayern this season. Alongside him is Arkadiusz Milik, who has proved a perfect partner for the star striker, the pair forming a good old-fashioned two-pronged team. Meanwhile, Krychowiak is at the heart of more attacking moves than he is given credit for.
If you enjoy thrilling wingers – and come on, which football fan doesn't? – then Ukraine's Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka could have you on the edge of your armchair.
The key matches: Germany vs Poland not only pits the group's top names against each other, it has resurrected a historical beef between the two nations from some - one Polish newspaper provoked anger in Germany by depicting coach Leo Beenhakker clutching the severed heads of his German counterpart, Loew, and the team's former captain, Michael Ballack, says CNN.
The group's final tie is between Ukraine and Poland, which could carry the whiff of an upset if the Poles are within their opponents' sights for qualification.