Shane Long came off the bench to score a memorable goal to down world champions Germany and keep the Republic of Ireland’s hopes alive of an automatic qualifying berth for Euro 2016. Just five minutes after arriving on the pitch, the Southampton striker ran clear of the Germany defense and finished emphatically for the only goal of the contest in Dublin to transform Ireland’s position in an incredibly tight Group D.
At the time, with Scotland leading against Poland in the other crucial match in Group D, Ireland were looking at a probable scenario of needing to beat Poland away in the final round of qualifying on Sunday just to make it into the playoffs. But Long’s goal means Martin O’Neill’s side are now guaranteed a playoff spot. While Poland scored late to take a draw in Scotland, it still means that Ireland can qualify automatically for France if they get a high-scoring draw of at least 2-2 in Poland or a victory.
Germany, meanwhile, now still need at least a draw in their final match at home to Georgia to make sure of being at the European Championship. It will be a significant frustration for Germany, but for the Irish this was one of the great results in the country’s history.
Ireland had secured a draw in the reverse fixture in Gelsenkirchen earlier in the qualifying campaign, but the failure to take more than a single point in two matches with Scotland left their chances firmly in the balance heading into the final two rounds of fixtures.
For much of Thursday’s contest they lived on the edge, too. Sitting back and allowing the 2014 World Cup winners to dominate possession, Germany created adequate chances early in both halves and often it required desperate Irish defending to keep the visitors at bay. The hosts lost their first-choice goalkeeper, Shay Given, late in the opening period, too.
But, despite having scarcely produced an attack of note for the previous 69 minutes, it was Ireland that grabbed the game’s solitary goal. Germany’s defense, and particularly Mats Hummels, were caught napping as substitute goalkeeper Darren Randolph launched the ball forward and the fresh legs of Long ran onto it before composing himself and firing past the world’s best goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer.
In truth, the way Germany defended on the goal was emblematic of the complacency that appeared to creep into their game during the contest. Even in an expanded format to 24 teams, qualifying has been far from the stroll many expected for Joachim Low’s team. Yet, after a shaky start, five successive wins meant they traveled to Dublin’s Aviva Stadium needing just a point to make sure of qualification.
The way the match started it appeared it would be a matter of time before they went in front. Thomas Müller had a good chance deflected just off target in the opening minute, while Mesut Özil had a goal rightly ruled out for offside not long after. Yet, to their credit, Ireland were desperately committed to the task of keeping their esteemed guests at bay.
On numerous occasions those in green threw themselves in the way of the ball in and around the penalty area. Still, Germany will feel they should have been more clinical. Perhaps the best chance fell to substitute Andre Schürrle , who was found free at the back post by Marco Reus after a lightning-quick break, but sent his volley off target.
Increasingly, Germany got into a pattern of sterile possession. They had been given little to fear by Ireland up to that point, but Ireland and Long provided them with a stunning wakeup call. And yet, even after going behind, still, Germany lacked a ruthless touch.
Almost immediately after going behind, Hummels headed wide of the target from close range. And then, inexplicably, the in-form Müller side-footed wide with seemingly everyone in the stadium ready for the net to ripple. This, though, was Ireland’s night.