In 2012, Germany were thrown together with Portugal, the Netherlands and Denmark in what was widely described as the “Group of Death”. In the buildup towards the Euro 2016 draw in Paris there had been the usual fears of ending up in a similar situation, but when the names were finally drawn the results were more than satisfactory. Germany were the second team drawn from the first pot to head up Group C – securing fixtures in Lille, St. Denis and Paris – and as the drama unfolded they thankfully avoided some of the more dangerous opponents in the remaining three pots, including old foes Italy, the Czech Republic and bête noire Croatia.
Northern Ireland were the first to join the Mannschaft from the fourth-ranked pot, followed by Ukraine and then more familiar foes in the shape of qualifying group opponents Poland. The presence of both of the Euro 2012 co-hosts gives the group an interesting Eastern European flavour, with Northern Ireland providing a dash of Irish charm. While many Germany fans will be happy with the outcome – defending champions Spain by contrast ended up with the Czech Republic, Turkey and Croatia – things in France will be far from a pushover.
Overall however, the important people were happy with the draw. Coach Joachim Löw admitted that Poland are a great side and that both Ukraine and Northern Ireland are not the most pleasant teams to play, but was clear in stating that Germany are favourites. General manager Oliver Bierhoff – scorer of a famous five-minute hat-trick against Northern Ireland after coming on as a substitute in a Euro qualifier in Belfast in 1997 – was similarly confident.
Ukraine (12.06.2016, Lille)
Germany kick off the tournament in the Northern city of Lille against Ukraine, a team often seen as tournament dark horses. After suffering group stage elimination in their own tournament in 2012 and failing to qualify for the World Cup in 2014, the Ukrainians will be looking at pushing for a spot in the last eight. With their game against Germany coming first, Mykhaylo Fomenko’s side will be at their freshest and sharpest – making them dangerous and unpredictable opponents.
Head to Head Record: P5 W2 D3 L0
Germany’s record against Ukraine is a good one. Since the break up of the Soviet Union and their emergence as an independent country, the Yellow-Blues are yet to beat the Nationalelf in five attempts. The first two encounters were during the qualifying stages for the 1998 World Cup, with a German side inspired by a magical Mario Basler triumphed 2-0 in Bremen before teams rolled to a goalless draw in Kyiv. Four years later the two teams met again in the playoff stage for the 2002 World Cup, when the Germans followed a 1-1 draw in Kyiv with a stunning 4-1 triumph in Dortmund with Michael Ballack taking centre stage.
The most recent meeting in Kyiv in November 2011 saw the Ukrainians almost break their duck. The friendly match saw the Nationaltrainer experiment with his formation, a tactic that played straight into the hands of the home side who stormed into a 3-1 lead. Despite their poor defensive performance, the Mannschaft were able to get things together up front, with Simon Rolfes and Thomas Müller salvaging a 3-3 draw.
Thrown into a tough six-team group including defending champions Spain and fellow dark horses Slovakia, Ukraine’s start wasn’t great. A home defeat to Slovakia immediately put their campaign on the back foot, and with Spain overcoming an early shock defeat at the hands of the Slovaks to dominate the group it all came down to the return match in Bratislava. A win would have seen Ukraine leapfrog their rivals into second place, but the goalless draw that resulted wasn’t quite enough. From that point on, the priority was securing third place and a spot in the playoff lottery.
The playoff draw pitted Fomenko’s men against Slovenia, and a solid 2-0 win in Kyiv was enough to see them put one foot on the plane to France. The Slovenians took an early lead in the return leg to raise hopes of turning things around, but were unable to add to their tally; in the end, an equaliser from Andriy Yarmolenko deep into injury time settled the matter.
Following the retirement of goalscoring superstar Andriy Shevchenko, another Andriy – Yarmolenko – has come out of the shadows. With a record of twenty-two goals in fifty-five internationals, the Dynamo Kyiv hitman will be the biggest cause of worry for the German defence. Sevilla’s Yevhen Konoplyanka is a shining star in a solid midfield, and their is plenty of experience there in the form of veteran skipper Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, once of FC Bayern München.
Poland (16.06.2016, St. Denis)
Having met twice in what was an unexpectedly competitive qualifying group, Poland are turning into something of a familiar foe for Joachim Löw’s men. Having been among the world’s leading sides in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Poles suffered a serious slump in form for the best part of three decades, but they have been back on the rise since their group stage exit at Euro 2012 – a fate shared with co-hosts Ukraine. Having taken nineteen games to finally beat the Germans in 2013, the Białe Orły (White Eagles) will be fancying their chances when the two teams meet at the Stade de France.
Head to Head Record: P20 W13 D6 L1
Until the meeting in Warsaw in November 2013, Poland’s record against Germany was nothing worth writing home about: the black eagles had firmly dominated their white counterparts for over eighty years. Although their overall record of thirteen defeats, six draws and that sole victory is still pretty dismal, it masks the fact that the Poles are more than capable and dangerous opponents.
Some of the Germany’s greatest matches again Poland came in the 1970s when their opponents were at the peak of their powers, with perhaps the most memorable being the famously dramatic Wasserschlacht von Frankfurt in 1974. On that dramatic afternoon, Germany overcame a Uli Hoeneß penalty miss and a world-class Polish side to win with a late strike from Gerd Müller en route to their second World Cup triumph.
Having suffered that surprising 2-0 loss in the Polish capital, order was restored in the return fixture in Frankfurt. Having stormed to an early two-goal lead, Löw’s side absorbed plenty of Polish pressure in the middle of the game before wrapping things up with a third goal to secure a 3-1 win.
We all know about Poland. On seeing the qualifying group alongside Scotland, the Republic of Ireland, Georgia and Gibraltar there was initial little fear for German fans, but as the group started to develop it soon became apparent that things were not going to be easy. Adam Nawałka’s side kept their form after stunning the Germans in Warsaw, doing more than enough to stave off the challenge from the Scots and Irish.
Defeat in Frankfurt and Germany’s second shock defeat at the hands of the Republic of Ireland kept the door ajar for the Irish, but Poland made sure of their place in the finals and secured second place in the group table with a 2-1 win over the Green Army in their final match.
Poland have a number of excellent players in their squad, but the attention will be clearly focussed on one man: striker Robert Lewandowski. Having made his name in the Bundesliga for Borussia Dortmund, Lewandowski has become a major star for FC Bayern, and this season has been better than ever. Records have come aplenty including his five goals in ten minutes against VfL Wolfsburg in the DFB-Pokal, and the Polish striker is undoubtedly one of the finest marksmen in the world right now.
Of course, Poland are more than just a one-man band. Young Ajax striker Arkadiusz Milik was just as much a thorn in the side for Poland’s opponents as Lewandowski, while roving right-back Łukasz Piszczek and midfield general Jakub “Kuba” Błaszczykowski are more than well-known to Bundesliga fans.
Northern Ireland (21.06.2016, Paris)
Germany’s final group match at the Parc des Princes in Paris pits them against first-time Euro finalists Northern Ireland, setting up the first competitive encounter between the two teams since the Euro 2000 qualifiers and the first of the Jogi Löw era. It is the first time the Northern Irish have reached a major tournament finals since the World Cup in Mexico in 1986, and they will be looking to impress after finally emerging from the shadows of their southern neighbours from the Republic of Ireland.
Head to Head Record: P14 W8 D4 L2
Germany’s record against Northern Ireland is a good one, if one chooses to forget the two defeats suffered during the painful Euro 1984 campaign which saw Jupp Derwall’s side secure qualification by a the finest of threads. In all, the Mannschaft’s record against Norn Iron reads at eight victories, four draws and those two defeats in Belfast in 1982 in Hamburg in 1983.
Since the 1980s however, Germany have maintained an almost perfect record against the Ulstermen. After three successive 1-1 draws in the early and mid-1990s the Mannschaft have racked up four successive victories, the latest being a 4-1 friendly win in Belfast in 2005.
While Germany and Northern Ireland have played each other nine times in competitive internationals, the two teams have met just the once in final tournament competition – a 2-2 draw in the first phase of the 1958 World Cup in Sweden.
With the tournament being expanded to twenty-four teams, Northern Ireland had more than a sniff of finishing in the top three – but nobody expected such a fantastic campaign. With 2008 European Champions Greece expected to top the group and consistent competitors Romania expected to provide the stiffest challenge to the Greeks, the Irish were placed alongside the Hungarians and Finns as candidates for the precious playoff spot.
The reality was in stark contrast to the expert predictions. The Greeks collapsed completely, losing to the Faroe Islands twice and finishing bottom of the group, while Northern Ireland continually punched above their weight. Michael O’Neill’s men suffered only the one defeat in their ten matches – a 0-2 loss in Romania – but victories in Hungary, Greece and the Faroes put them in pole position. A late equaliser at home to the Hungarians proved crucial, and another point in Finland in their final match was enough to see the Northern Irish finish in top spot above the unbeaten Romanians.
Northern Ireland’s recent success has largely been down to their playing as a team rather than the performance of any outstanding individuals, but Norwich City striker Kyle Lafferty netted seven goals during the qualifying campaign – far surpassing his fairly ordinary goals per game ratio at domestic level.
On balance, this is a relatively straightforward group for Joachim Löw’s men, who will expect to top the standings and head back to Lille’s Stade Pierre-Mauroy for the knockout phase, against the third-placed team from one of Group A (containing France, Switzerland, Romania, Albania), B (England, Russia, Slovakia, Wales) or F (Portugal, Austria, Iceland, Hungary).