Belfast Telegraph

Michael Smith drawing motivation from his Euro 2016 disappointment

Magic moment: Michael Smith celebrates his wonder
strike against Germany
Magic moment: Michael Smith celebrates his wonder strike against Germany

By Paul Ferguson

A mere mention of the Euro 2020 finals was enough to perk up disconsolate Michael Smith in the bowels of the Commerzbank-Arena following Northern Ireland's 6-1 annihilation by ruthless Germany on Tuesday night.

The Northern Ireland full-back had been crestfallen, totally numb, at the manner in which the Germans had carved open the men in green and given a masterclass in clinical finishing.

Smith took little solace in scoring a stunning first international goal - a thunderous shot from 26 yards out which flew past Marc-Andre ter Stegen in Germany's goal.

Yet the prospect of Northern Ireland being just two games from the Euro finals next year was the perfect remedy to cure the ills of Germany's demolition.

Smith, who made his Northern Ireland debut in the Euro 2016 warm-up match with Slovenia, a 1-0 win at Windsor Park, failed to make Michael O'Neill's cut for the 23-man panel of players he took to France.

He was still in attendance at the finals, though - as a fan, supporting his team-mates from the stands in Nice, Lyon and Paris.

But now, having envied those who made the plane to France, the Hearts defender wants to experience first-hand the thrills of major tournament football next year.

Northern Ireland are just two games away from reaching their second consecutive Euro finals after Wales' defeat of Hungary on Tuesday evening paired the men in green away to Bosnia and Herzegovina in the semi-finals of the play-offs.

If Northern Ireland are successful on Thursday, March 26, they would play either Slovakia or the Republic of Ireland in the play-off decider for the right to go to the finals.

"It's a massive incentive," admitted the former Ballymena United ace. "I missed out on the Euro 2016 squad, so I'll be busting a gut to get there.

"I was gutted not to make the squad, but I learned from that experience.

"I went out to France with a couple of mates and watched the games. I was a proud fan, especially in Lyon. It was a fantastic day (defeating Ukraine 2-0).

"It would be nice to play in games like that, so I'm going to do all I can to get there.

"So I want to play in March, and that's my objective now because it would be fantastic to reach the finals. The lads always talk about Euro 2016 and I want to feel what it's like to get there."

Northern Ireland were beaten home and away by Bosnia in the Nations League just last year, however they received huge praise for their attractive high press style of play, which allowed them to dominate both games. Poor finishing and individual errors cost them dear as Bosnia's leading marksman Edin Dzeko basically won the games single-handedly.

"We know what we want to do," stressed the Ballyclare man. "Tactically, Michael is a great coach and he's still going to be with us in March which is a real plus for us.

"He'll set us up really well and we'll go there with a strong game plan."

Smith and his international team-mates returned to their clubs yesterday licking their wounds after the Frankfurt footballing education by a German team determined to cover up the cracks of selection spats and player fall-outs during the last year.

Northern Ireland were seriously hampered by the absence of star defender Jonny Evans and the versatile Stuart Dallas as Serge Gnabry netted a hat-trick, Leon Goretzka scored twice and Julian Brandt completed the rout in injury time.

Germany were relentless in their attacking pursuit, scything through the Northern Ireland team, showing incredible touch, movement and skill while their finishing was lethal.

Northern Ireland, on occasions, failed to get tight and close down space, and with Toni Kroos and Joshua Kimmich in the middle of the park constantly whipping balls out to the rampaging left wing-back Jonas Hector, Smith was given a torrid time.

The Germans had 72 per cent of the play, 22 efforts on goal and 11 on target.

"They are a top-class team," admitted Smith. "They moved the ball really well and they had us on a string really.

"Kroos ran the game and we never laid a glove on them, didn't put any tackles in, didn't hurry them, harry them, so it's disappointing from our point of view.

"That's probably the toughest opposition I've come up against. You can only learn from it, watch the video back and learn from it."

There was one bright early spark for Northern Ireland with Smith's blistering goal from well outside the area on seven minutes.

He added: "I heard someone shout, and I'm nearly sure it was Paddy (McNair) saying, 'Take a touch', but luckily I didn't because I rattled it into the bottom corner!

"It's probably not the best I've scored, but it has to be my favourite."

While the heavy defeat was hard to stomach, it proved to be largely irrelevant as Germany had already confirmed their qualification for the finals and Northern Ireland were guaranteed third place and also a play-off. Die Mannschaft took top spot in Group C from the Netherlands, who hammered Estonia 5-0 in their final game.

Northern Ireland finished on 13 points after four wins and a draw. A commendable effort for a campaign, especially with the brave and bullish displays against the Germans at Windsor in September and the Dutch in Rotterdam and Belfast.

Smith continued: "We knew we had a job to do in the first four games against Estonia and Belarus. We did that well and got the 12 points.

"But we then knew the next four games would be really tough. We pushed Holland in Rotterdam and that wasn't to be.

"We also pushed Germany at home, it just wasn't to be. It's all ifs and buts, but while the result in Frankfurt was terrible, we've got to push that to one side now, pick ourselves up and focus on the play-offs."

Qualification for the Euro 2020 finals would certainly erase the memory of the rout in Germany, the hard luck stories against the European super-heavyweights in Group C and allow Smith to go from the stands to the pitch at a major international tournament.

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