Northern Ireland vs Germany Preview: Decisive night at Windsor Park

The world champions are almost at the finals, whilst the hosts should make the play-offs - but could there be a shock result?

Northern Ireland vs Germany Preview: Decisive night at Windsor Park
#DareToDream - German players training at Windsor Park on Wednesday. | Photo: Getty/Oliver McVeigh.

Northern Ireland are on the brink of reaching the 2018 FIFA World Cup play-offs, but before they can think about that they have the tough task of hosting Germany on Thursday night.

The world champions themselves need just a point to book their place in Russia, whilst the same applies for Michael O’Neill’s side if they are to confirm their play-off berth before the final game.

Could they cause an almighty upset at Windsor Park though?

Both teams on the brink

Although Northern Ireland famously beat then in a European Championship match in Belfast in 1982, Germany have never lost a World Cup qualifying game away from home, and if they continue that remarkable run in Belfast they will secure their place for next year’s tournament.

A shock victory for Northern Ireland, which despite all the progress made under O’Neill which still be one of the most incredible results in their history, would send things to the final round of games on Sunday with Northern Ireland two points behind the world champions.

Even then, Germany would be expected to comfortably beat Azerbaijan in Kaiserslautern and the Northern Irish would most likely have to beat Norway to have any chance of snatching top spot in the group.

In any case, they know for certain that they have second ensured, with an unassailable lead over the Azerbaijanis in third. With only the best eight runners-up from the nine groups making the play-offs, they still need another point from the final two games to confirm their place in them. Even two defeats in their final two matches is unlikely to see them miss out though.

It’s the third time the two sides have met in just over a year. Following Germany’s narrow 1-0 victory at UEFA Euro 2016, they were victorious again in the reverse qualifying match in Hanover last October, with goals from Julian Draxler and Sami Khedira.

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Northern Ireland with nothing to lose

O’Neill admits that after a highly-successful campaign that “this is almost the bonus game for us.” That said, he added that “the players believe they can” raise their game, and he believes so as well.

He also they “shouldn’t fear the outcome of this game,” as nothing can “take away from the campaign we have had.”

Those views were echoed by his counterpart Joachim Löw. Saying that the game “feels a little bit like a final,” he thinks that Northern Ireland “will be willing to risk everything with an all or nothing attitude,” as “they have nothing to lose.”

He thinks that the Windsor Park crowd will be “buoyant,” and he expects that to have an effect on their players. He also praised their football, saying “they spread the ball well, play very disciplined football.” He added that it “speaks volumes” that they have kept clean sheets in seven of their eight matches.

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McAuley and Boateng to return

Aaron Hughes has been ruled out of the game having failed to recover in time from a calf injury he picked up playing for Heart of Midlothian on Saturday. They do though have Gareth McAuley available again after he missed September’s qualifiers, and the West Bromwich Albion man will slot straight into the defence in place of Hughes.

With Craig Cathcart another absentee, O’Neill is not expected to make any other changes from the 2-0 win against the Czech Republic last month, depending on the shape he chooses to go with. That is despite six playing, including Steven Davis and Jonny Evans, all one yellow card away from a booking.

Manuel Neuer, Jonas Hector, Khedira, Mesut Özil and Timo Werner are the most significant absentees for Germany. Löw has confirmed that Mats Hummels will captain the side and that Jérôme Boateng will, all being well, start alongside him at the back, having missed 11 months of international action through injury.

Marc-André ter Stegen will continue in goal in Neuer’s absence, but whilst Hertha BSC’s Marvin Plattenhardt is the most natural replacement for Hector at left-back, don’t be surprised if Löw puts Matthias Ginter or one of this other centre-backs there instead. Lars Stindl could start up front, although Löw hasn’t ruled out playing both him and Sandro Wagner.

Predicted line-ups

Northern Ireland: (4-3-3) McGovern; McLaughlin, McAuley, J. Evans; Brunt; Davis, C. Evans, Norwood; Magennis, Washington, Dallas.

Germany: (4-2-3-1) ter Stegen; Kimmich, Hummels, Boateng, Plattenhardt; Goretzka, Rudy; Müller, Kroos, Draxler; Stindl.

Quotes via BBC and DFB.