Euro 2016: Norwich City striker Kyle Lafferty’s Northern Ireland reach Euro 2016 knock-out stages
PUBLISHED: 22:08 21 June 2016 | UPDATED: 22:16 21 June 2016
Norwich City striker Kyle Lafferty was able to celebrate on Tuesday night after Northern Ireland’s place in the knock-out stages of Euro 2016 was confirmed, despite earlier losing 1-0 to world champions Germany in their Group C finale in Paris.
Michael O’Neill’s battlers will qualify as one of the four best third-placed sides following the conclusion of Group D, which saw Turkey finish third in their section on the same number of points but with an inferior goal difference.
Northern Ireland must now await the outcome of Groups E and F on Wednesday to discover whether they play either hosts France on June 26 or neighbours Wales on June 25.
Lafferty played the final 30 minutes against the Germans, who topped their group on goal difference from Poland with a narrow win over O’Neill’s side. Mario Gomes scored the winner in the 29th minute but Northern Ireland were indebted to keeper Michael McGovern, who produced a string of fine stops to deny one of the tournament favourites a more emphatic victory.
Lafferty again was left out of the starting line-up against the Germans despite his seven goals in qualifying firing his country to the finals this summer.
The City frontman appeared in the opening 1-0 defeat to Poland but was one of five changes for the 2-0 win over Ukraine last week which sealed his country’s place in the last 16 in their first-ever appearance at the European Championships.
McGovern’s heroics denied Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil and Mario Gotze in the first half before thwarting Gotze and Gomez again with even better saves after the break.
The prospect of a potentially historic night for Northern Ireland had brought four-time major winning golfer Rory McIlroy, one of their most famous sporting sons, to the French capital, though he was soon craning his neck in one direction as the Germans took control.
With Conor Washington cut adrift in attack, the Northern Irish midfield were unable to stop Toni Kroos and, in particular, Ozil pulling apart their defence.
McGovern’s one-on-one save from Thomas Muller was the first of a trio of stops in quick succession, the others coming from Ozil and Gotze, before Muller steered another attempt just past the post.
Still the attacks came and after Muller nodded Joshua Kimmich’s cross on to the post, it took just two more minutes before McGovern was finally beaten.
Ozil was again the architect as he released Muller, and though Aaron Hughes and McGovern shut off his route to goal, Gomez was on hand to finish via a Gareth McAuley deflection.
O’Neill had trusted the same XI that defeated Ukraine five days earlier, yet while they had created opportunities then, Jamie Ward’s shot straight at Manuel Neuer was their only first-half attempt, and they were fortunate to not be 2-0 down at the break as Muller again struck the woodwork.
For all the galaxy of stars in the German’s arsenal, the best player on the pitch continued to be Hamilton’s McGovern, who is out of contract at the end of this month and will not be short of offers having somehow denied Gotze’s half-volley by thrusting his right arm down early in the second period.
Gotze was substituted shortly after missing a sitter from close range before McGovern thwarted Sami Khedira - Gomez heading the rebound wide.
Lafferty came on in place of Washington prior to the hour mark and Steven Davis’ long carry forward and a couple of corner opportunities, which ultimately came to nothing, increased the decibel levels among the Green and White Army.
McGovern’s heroics may have dispirited the reigning World Cup holders as their dominance decreased, with a Muller header wide from Ozil’s delivery their only effort of note for some time.
And, even when they did find the target, McGovern’s form continued as he scooped Gomez’s header away with his fingertips after the goalscorer had reached the impressive Kimmich’s cross.