Germany (above) opened their campaign with a scratchy 2-0 win over Ukraine and then drew 0-0 with Poland © Getty Images
Germany (above) opened their campaign with a scratchy 2-0 win over Ukraine and then drew 0-0 with Poland © Getty Images

Paris: Thomas Mueller has defended Germany’s misfiring forwards ahead of their pivotal final Euro 2016 Group C game against Northern Ireland on Tuesday. The world champions opened their campaign with a scratchy 2-0 win over Ukraine and then drew 0-0 with Poland, leaving them needing at least a point from their last pool match in Paris to be sure of a place in the next round. Mario Goetze, who has been deployed as a ‘false nine’, is still to find the net, while playmaker Mesut Ozil has been criticised by former Germany midfielder Mehmet Scholl, but Mueller cites the defensive tactics his team have faced as a mitigating factor.

“They [Northern Ireland] will put a lot of players around their own penalty area and when 11 players defend together, it is never a walk in the park,” said the Bayern Munich star. “I do not expect that it’ll be a shooting fest for us. I wish it would be, but you have to be realistic.” Former Germany captain Michael Ballack has taken Goetze and fellow striker Mario Gomez to task over their shortcomings in attack and has accused Loew’s side of prioritising “beautiful football” over winning.

Mueller, Germany’s top scorer at the 2014 World Cup, is also yet to get off the mark in France, but he believes that criticism of the team’s displays to date has been excessive. “You have rarely been impressed with our results, apart from the 7-1 against Brazil [in the World Cup semi-finals],” he told reporters. “We expect a good performance, but we can’t guarantee the result. It’s without question that we’re favourites against Northern Ireland. I would take a tough win and tolerate what is written.” With Goetze having been withdrawn after 66 minutes against Poland in Paris, Gomez could be handed his first start of the tournament in place of the under-performing Bayern forward.

‘We don’t fear them’

Jerome Boateng is expected to keep his place at centre-back despite a bruised hip, while Bastian Schweinsteiger is again likely to start on the bench as he builds up fitness following a knee ligament injury. Regardless of Poland’s result against eliminated Ukraine in Marseille, Northern Ireland need to win at Parc des Princes if they are to secure one of the two automatic qualifying spots.

But with three points in the bag already following Thursday’s 2-0 win over Ukraine, Michael O’Neill’s side could qualify as one of the four best third-place sides even if they lose. The win in Lyon, courtesy of second-half goals by Gareth McAuley and Niall McGinn, earned Northern Ireland a first major tournament success since the 1982 World Cup in Spain and forward Jamie Ward says it has given his side belief that they can hustle the Germans out of their stride.

“We know what Germany are all about and they have some of the best players in the world,” said the Nottingham Forest player. “We respect them, but do not fear them. Our game is all about working hard and not giving people time on the ball. That might be different to what Germany have experienced before. We know we will not dominate possession. Our strength is pressing and making life difficult for our opponents.”

Coach O’Neill made five changes for the win over Ukraine and must decide whether to restore Kyle Lafferty — his top scorer in qualifying — to the starting XI after Conor Washington took his place in Lyon. The Irish Football Association has requested permission for Northern Ireland’s players to wear black armbands in memory of 62-year-old supporter Robert Rainey, who died after reportedly suffering a heart attack during the game against Ukraine. He became the second Northern Ireland fan to die at the tournament after 24-year-old Darren Rodgers fell to his death in Nice last Monday.

Squads:

Northern Ireland: Michael McGovern, Roy Carroll, Alan Mannus, Conor McLaughlin, Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans, Chris Baird, Luke McCullough, Paddy McNair, Aaron Hughes, Craig Cathcart, Lee Hodson, Shane Ferguson, Niall McGinn, Steven Davis (c), Corry Evans, Stuart Dallas, Oliver Norwood, Jamie Ward, Will Grigg, Kyle Lafferty, Conor Washington, Josh Magennis.

Germany: Manuel Neuer, Bernd Leno, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Jerome Boateng, Emre Can, Jonas Hector, Benedikt Hoewedes, Mats Hummels, Shkodran Mustafi, Antonio Ruediger, Julian Draxler, Sami Khedira, Joshua Kimmich, Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil, Lukas Podolski, Andre Schurrle, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Julian Weigl, Mario Gomez, Mario Goetze, Leroy Sane.

Time: 9.30 PM