Belfast Telegraph

Low high on praise for heavyweights at heart of defence

 

By Paul Ferguson

Germany's World Cup winning coach Joachim Low paid Northern Ireland a compliment as he left Belfast yesterday insisting the country may be small in size but Michael O'Neill's defence should be regarded as true 'heavyweights' on the world stage.

Low's superstars defeated Northern Ireland 3-1 at Windsor Park - the third time in 15 months Germany have overcome the men in green.

But the Die Mannschaft manager was hugely impressed with the contributions of Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans, Conor McLaughlin and Chris Brunt in Northern Ireland's back four and the safe hands of Michael McGovern in goal.

Germany put six past Norway last month but O'Neill's warriors kept the scoreline respectable - especially after the sucker punch of the opening goal just two minutes into the game.

Northern Ireland, up until Thursday night's defeat, held the best defensive record in World Cup qualifying with seven clean sheets and the players are desperate to make it in eight in Oslo tomorrow night.

Low said: "In the first half we played just the way we had imagined and pretty much dominated and controlled the game and I think Northern Ireland's offence only had three opportunities.

"But I think Northern Ireland are heavyweights in terms of defending and we found it pretty difficult to break down their defence.

"With all due respect they have just under two million people, so aren't a big country and don't have huge resources, but they have been absolutely competitive this group. There was hardly a gap between them and us throughout the entire campaign."

Northern Ireland could find out this evening that they have definitely made the play-offs without even kicking a ball in Oslo - provided Bosnia don't beat Belgium and Greece fail to overcome Cyprus.

O'Neill's men want to finish the group in style with victory against Norway and the play-offs and indeed earning a seeding is very much in their own hands.

Low is confident Northern Ireland can join Germany at the World Cup finals next year in Russia via the play-offs - provided they avoid Italy and Portugal.

He said: "Northern Ireland are definitely able to go far, I've already talked about their strong defending but they are strong in set pieces, every throw in is a danger to the opposition while with corners they can wreck havoc.

"It will be tremendously difficult to beat Portugal or Italy over two games but they can do it when it comes to playing to their strengths - passion, commitment and the supporters."

The Germans headed back home yesterday having secured top spot in Group C and their rightful place in Russia next year following the 3-1 win.

But boss Low was not allowing his players to lose focus by celebrating as he wants them to concentrate on beating Azerbaijan tomorrow to make it 10 wins out of 10 in the qualifiers.

"Did I allow the players the chance to celebrate and have a few beers? Give the players time off to spend in Belfast pubs? No, that would have been utterly unprofessional and it's just not our style," Low admitted.

"We will strive to win 10 games from 10 and that, plus the goal average, will hopefully result in Germany's most successful qualification campaign in our history."

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