As recently-crowned European Champions, Germany were expected to breeze through a qualifying group for the 1998 World Cup in France containing Portugal, Ukraine, Northern Ireland, Albania and Armenia. They went through the ten games during the course of 1996 and 1997 unbeaten, but the campaign was not without the odd scare in what was a collection of rather bizarre results – particularly the two fixtures against unfancied Albania that between them produced a total of a dozen second-half goals.

After an expected steamrollering of minnows Armenia in Yerevan with midfield schemer Thomas Häßler scoring a rare brace, the first stumble took place at home to Northern Ireland, a team that had over the years turned into a something of a bogey side for the Nationalmannschaft. The Ulstermen took a shock lead in the thirty-eighth minute, only for Andy Möller to complete the evening’s scoring two minutes later. Two dropped home points were then followed by two dropped away points, as Germany drew 0-0 in Portugal.

The first qualifying fixture of 1997 saw a coming together with Albania in Grenada in Spain – the venue being changed following the ongoing troubles in Kosovo. After a goalless first half, things exploded into just after an hour when the Albanians took the lead with a disputed penalty. This resulted in an immediate tactical change by German coach Berti Vogts and the introduction of forward Ulf Kirsten for defensive midfielder Dieter Elits – prompting what would be the first of two inspired supersub showings during the ten-game campaign. Within two minutes Kirsten had levelled the scores, and some twenty minutes later had completed a stunning hat-trick. The Albanians pulled a goal back with a second Elfmeter a minute from time, but a game that had promised nothing during the first forty-five minutes had turned into a pulsating encounter. On the back of this victory Vogts’ side clinically disposed of potential banana skin Ukraine in Bremen before a rather sluggish goalless draw in the return fixture in Kyiv.

The first of the final four fixtures saw the second encounter against Northern Ireland – and the second stunning German supersub hat-trick. After a goalless first half the Irishmen took the lead on the hour mark, with Vogts responding by throwing on Oliver Bierhoff in the sixty-ninth minute. Within ten minutes of his arrival, the hero of Euro ’96 had bagged a hat-trick, with all of his goals being scored in the space of six amazing minutes. A precarious situation had in a stroke become a stroll.

The first halves of Germany’s last five fixtures had been goalless, and this series continued against Portugal in Berlin when the visitors took a seventieth-minute lead. This prompted yet another inspired substitution by Berti Vogts, who responded by replacing Bierhoff with Kirsten – and inevitably within ten minutes the Leverkusen man had evened up the scores. It would have been too much to ask for a third “joker” hat-trick; the game finished level at one apiece, with two more home points dropped.

With the group winner guaranteed a place at the finals and the second-placed team a play-off spot, the final run-in saw three teams chasing the two spots: Germany, Portugal and dark horses Ukraine. Prior to to Germany’s penultimate fixture in Hannover against Armenia, the Ukrainians were leading the way with seventeen points from nine games and a goal difference of +2, the Germans were in second place on sixteen points and a goal difference of +9 having played a game less, while the Portuguese were in third – also on sixteen points, but having played one game more than the Germans with a goal difference of +7.

Germany needed at least four points from their final two home fixtures to be guaranteed top spot in the group, and were expected to pick up the first three of these against an Armenian side that been beaten 5-1 in the earlier corresponding fixture. When one looks at the final 4-0 scoreline things look clear-cut, but it took the Mannschaft well over a hour to breach the Armenian defence. After Jürgen Klinsmann had opened the scoring in the seventieth minute, the floodgates simply opened and it quickly turned into a rather flattering rout.

As the group reached its final evening, Germany now had nineteen points from their nine games with a goal difference of +13, the Ukraine were second on seventeen points and +2, while the Portuguese were on sixteen points and +7. Despite being unbeaten during the campaign, dropped points by Berti Vogts’ side had ensured yet another last-gasp finish.

With all of the top three teams not playing each other, it was a straightforward sprint for the two available qualifying berths. Germany had Albania at home, Ukraine faced a trip to Yerevan to take on Armenia, while the Portuguese took on Northern Ireland in Lisbon. On account of their superior goal difference, all Germany really needed was a draw to secure top spot – everything else was up for grabs.

With Germany still goalless in Hannover and on a theoretical total of twenty points with a goal difference of +13, Portugal took the lead against the Irish, pushing them onto nineteen points alongside the Ukrainians but with a better goal difference. Then came the news that the Ukraine had taken a thirty-third minute lead in Yerevan, taking them into second place on goal difference behind the Germans and squeezing out the Portuguese. Half-time arrived.

Less than ten minutes after the restart, things were suddenly turned on their head. The Ukraine went two goals up in Armenia, but the real shock came in Hannover as Jürgen Kohler put the ball into his own net to gift Albania the opening goal. This meant that the Ukrainians had jumped into top spot on twenty points and a goal difference of +4, ahead of both Germany and Portugal on nineteen points – with the Germans clinging onto the playoff spot on account of their goal difference of +12 bettering Portugal’s +8.

Kohler’s Eigentor served to spark what had up to that point been a rather dull match into life: less than ten minutes later Michael Tarnat levelled the scores to return Germany to the back of the group table ahead of the Ukraine on goal difference, before Oliver Bierhoff took them clear with just over ten minutes left on the clock. But the drama was not yet over: the final ten minutes saw what could only be described as an insane trading of goals, with Igli Tare and Rudi Vata sandwiching an effort by substitute Olaf Marschall to level things up at 3-3 before that man Bierhoff popped up with almost the last kick of the game to put the Mannschaft back in front and into the finals.

As the final whistle blew, there was yet again a feeling of relief rather than jubilation among the German crowd. It had been an highly entertaining finale, but at the costs of many hearts in mouths and chewed-up fingernails. I myself had been sitting firmly on my hands to prevent my throwing random items at the Fernsehapparat.

So ended yet another unbeaten World Cup qualifying campaign – with Germany top of the group on twenty-two points from their ten games and a goal difference of +14. With the Ukrainians and Portuguese both having won their respective fixtures, the Iberians found themselves being pipped by a single point, ensuring the first finals appearance for the Ukraine.

Once again the Germans had done enough – but there were a number of serious questions. These questions would be emphatically answered the following year in France.

Match Results and Details

v Armenia, Hrazdan Stadium, Yerevan, 09.10.1996

5-1 (3-0)
Häßler 20., 39., Klinsmann 26., Bobić 69., Kuntz 81. / Mikaelyan 85.

Team: Köpke – Reuter – Kohler, Babbel – Bode (73. Kuntz), Eilts, Paßlack – Scholl, Häßler (75. Tarnat) – Klinsmann (c), Bierhoff (63. Bobić)

Goal Info:

1-0 Germany win a direct free-kick just outside the Armenian box, and Thomas Häßler’s right-footed curling shot towards the top-left corner is well collected by ‘keeper Roman Berezovsky. Referee Pierluigi Collina blows for a retake however, and Häßler this time hits a low shot the other way that skids into the back of the net.

2-0 Mehmet Scholl delivers a well-struck outswinging corner from the right, and skipper Jürgen Klinsmann rises majestically above a group of defenders to guide a firm downward header into the Armenian net past the helpless Berezovsky.

3-0 Scholl is fouled right at the edge of the Armenian penalty area in taking a neat square ball from Häßler, and a free-kick is awarded when it perhaps should have been a penalty. This makes little difference to Häßler, who curls a low skidding shot into the left-hand corner of the net.

4-0 A long clearance upfield by Andreas Köpke is collected by Klinsmann out on the right, who delivers an intelligent ball out to Häßler who is lurking just outside the Armenian penalty area. Häßler delivers the perfect first-time pass into the box for substitute Fredi Bobić, who calmly slots the ball past Berezovsky.

5-0 Mehmet Scholl delivers an outswinging corner from the right, and immediately regains possession when the Armenian fail to clear convincingly. Scholl sends an inviting cross back into the box, and substitute Stefan Kuntz arrives on the left just outside the six-yard box to guide a well-placed header into the right-hand corner of the net with Berezovsky stranded.

5-1 A well-timed pass from Armenian substitute Hakob Ter-Petrosyan catches the entire German defence by surprise, finding Karapet Mikaelyan just outside the penalty area. Mikaelyan veers left and outpaces Markus Babbel before clipping a delightful left-footed shot over the advancing Köpke.

v Northern Ireland, Frankenstadion, Nürnberg, 09.11.1996
Northern Ireland

1-1 (1-1)
Möller 40. / Taggart 38.

Team: Köpke – Reuter – Kohler – Babbel, Strunz, Eilts (62. Paßlack), Tarnat – Möller, Häßler – Bobić (70. Bierhoff), Klinsmann (c)

Goal Info:

1-0 Steve Lomas makes a break down the right for Northern Irland, and his cross into the German box is slightly deflected by Dieter Eilts. Thomas Strunz is perfectly positioned to clear the danger, but instead scuffs it towards Gerry Taggart who drills a low left-footed shot across Andreas Köpke and into the right of the German net.

1-1 Andreas Möller picks up the ball out on the right just inside the oppostion half, and charges forward towards goal. After playing a quick one-two with Fredi Bobić, Möller continues his run before unleashing a ferocious right-footed shot from twenty yards that flies unerringly into the top right-hand corner of net past the flying Tommy Wright.

v Portugal, Estádio da Luz, Lisboa, 14.12.1996

0-0 (0-0)
– / –

Team: Köpke – Sammer – Kohler – Reuter, Babbel (85. Tarnat), Eilts, Ziege – Basler (70. Kirsten), Möller – Klinsmann (c), Bobić

v Albania, Nuevo los Cármenes, Granada (ESP), 02.04.1997

3-2 (0-0)
Kirsten 63., 80., 83. / Kola pen 61., pen 89.

Team: Köpke – Sammer – Kohler, Helmer – Reuter (61. Heinrich), Eilts (62. Kirsten), Ziege – Möller, Wosz – Klinsmann (c), Bierhoff

Goal Info:

0-1 Dieter Eilts is penalised for clipping Altin Haxhi in the box after the Albanian takes a spectacular dive, and Albania are awarded a penalty. Bledar Kola steps up to take the kick, which just about beats the unlucky Andreas Köpke who gets a hand on it.

1-1 An outswinging corner from Christian Ziege is floated into the Albanian box, and Oliver Bierhoff leaps to send the ball across the face of the goal. Waiting inside the six-yard box is substitute Ulf Kirsten, who nods the ball into net in off the crossbar.

2-1 Andreas Möller picks up the ball in the middle of the Albanian half, and sends the ball out left to Ziege in space. The left-back had enough time to send a high cross into the Albanian box, and Kirsten arrives at the far post to bundle it a downward header past the unfortunate Strakosha.

3-1 Dariusz Wosz plays the ball out to Ziege, who delivers yet another telling cross into the Albanian penalty area. Jürgen Klinsmann’s attempt to steer the ball into the net is foiled by Strakosha, but Kirsten arrives to sweep it into the net with his right boot from just outside the six-yard box to complete a scrappy but highly valuable hat-trick.

3-2 Albania are awarded their second penalty when Dariusz Wosz is adjudged to have brought down Kola in the box. Kola dusts himself down to take the spot-kick, which is fires high into the roof of the net to Köpke’s right with the ‘keeper diving the other way.

v Ukraine, Weserstadion, Bremen, 30.04.1997

2-0 (0-0)
Bierhoff 62., Basler 71. / –

Team: Köpke – Helmer – Helmer – Kohler – Heinrich, Eilts, Ziege – Basler, Wosz (84. Tarnat) – Bobić (16. Nowotny), Klinsmann (c), Bierhoff

Goal Info:

1-0 Jörg Heinrich flings a long throw from the right touchline into the Ukrainian penalty area, and after both Jürgen Klinsmann and then Jens Nowotny win the ball in the air it falls to Oliver Bierhoff – who strokes a fabulous left-footed volley past ‘keeper Oleksandr Shovkovskiy into the left-hand corner of the net.

2-0 Christian Ziege plays a quick ball inside to the fast-moving Mario Basler, who exchanges quick one-twos first with Dariuz Wosz and then with Klinsmann while continuing his charge into the Ukrainian box. Basler then muscles past the right-back before lashing the ball over the advancing Shovkovskiy into the right inside netting with his left foot.

v Ukraine, Olympiyskyi, Kyiv, 07.06.1997

0-0 (0-0)
– / –

Team: Köpke – Sammer – Kohler, Helmer – Heinrich, Eilts, Ziege – Basler, Wosz (70. Scholl) – Kirsten (88. Bierhoff), Klinsmann (c)

v Northern Ireland, Windsor Park, Belfast, 20.08.1997
Northern Ireland

3-1 (0-0)
Bierhoff 73, 78., 79. / Hughes 60.

Team: Köpke – Helmer – Kohler – Wörns (64. Häßler), Nowotny, Ziege, Heinrich – Basler (83. Babbel), Möller – Klinsmann (c), Kirsten (69. Bierhoff)

Goal Info:

0-1 Christian Ziege’s pass to Andreas Möller is intercepted, and Northern Ireland break fast on the right. Jim Magilton finds James Quinn, who delivers a beautifully-timed ball for Michael Hughes inside the German penalty area. Hughes easily outpaces Christian Wörns and chips Andreas Köpke who is unable to close him down.

1-1 After seeing a number of crosses hacked or headed away by the Irish defence, Mario Basler plays a perfectly-weighted diagonal ball into the box which beats the defence and finds Thomas Häßler. Häßler cuts the ball square inside, and substitute Oliver Bierhoff pounces to slam a right-footed shot into the roof of the net past ‘keeper Aidan Davison.

2-1 Thomas Helmer lofts a long ball forward from the centre circle towards the opposition penalty area, and the ever-alert Häßler somehow gets ahead of two opponents before cutting left inside towards the penalty spot. He rolls the ball to his left into space, and Bierhoff strokes a low shot that slips under Davison.

3-1 A German corner out on the right sees Basler play it short to Häßler, who has plenty of time and space to swing another cross deep into the Irish penalty area. Helmer leaps high to nod the ball towards the far post, and Bierhoff arrives to stab it home from three yards to complete a spectacular six-minute hat-trick.

v Portugal, Olympiastadion, Berlin, 06.09.1997

1-1 (0-0)
Kirsten 80. / Pedro Barbosa 70.

Team: Köpke – Helmer – Kohler – Heinrich (79. Wosz), Reuter (46. Babbel), Nowotny, Ziege – Basler, Häßler – Bierhoff (70. Kirsten), Klinsmann (c)

Goal Info:

0-1 A patient Portuguese build-up sees Pedro Barbosa move out towards the left touchline before playing the ball inside to Luis Figo – while switching back to make a diagonal run into the box. Figo returns the pass with the outside of his right boot, and Barbosa outruns Markus Babbel before stroking a low right-foot shot past the diving Andreas Köpke into the right-hand side of the net.

1-1 Thomas Häßler rolls the ball out his left and Christian Ziege, who in turn finds substitute Dariusz Wosz on the left of the Portuguese penalty area. Wosz outfoxes the defence by playing a neat first-time cut-back towards the D, and an unmarked Ulf Kirsten charges into the empty space to drive a low left-footed shot that skids past Portuguese ‘keeper Silvino into the right-hand corner.

v Armenia, Westfalenstadion, Dortmund, 10.09.1997

4-0 (0-0)
Klinsmann 70., 84., Häßler 85., Kirsten 90. / –

Team: Köpke – Thon – Wörns – Heinrich, Kmetsch (46. Ricken), Helmer, Tarnat (66. Bierhoff) – Häßler, Wosz (81. Nowotny) – Kirsten, Klinsmann (c)

Goal Info:

1-0 Substitute Lars Ricken picks the ball up on the right flank, and floats in a high cross towards the back of the Armenian box. The ball is retrieved by Jörg Heinrich who nods it back to Ulf Kirsten, who in turn hooks it back into the danger zone. Oliver Bierhoff beats his marker in the air to head into the six-yard box, and Jürgen Klinsmann stretches out a left leg to volley the ball past ‘keeper Roman Berezovsky.

2-0 Thomas Häßler floats a gently outswinging corner into the opposition penalty area from the right, and Klinsmann arrives at the near post in front of two opponents to direct the ball superbly across the ‘keeper and into the left inside netting.

3-0 An Armenian defender handles the ball out on the right just outside the penalty area, and Germany win a direct free-kick. Häßler runs up, bends it around the wall and catches Berezovsky completely by surprise as it skids in to the left of the diving ‘keeper and inside the near post.

4-0 Olaf Thon out on the left plays the ball inside to Jens Nowotny, who sets himself up for a right-foot shot from some twenty-five yards. The ball spins off an Armenian foot before falling perfectly for Kirsten who sweeps it into the back of the empty net with his left foot.

v Albania, Niedersachsenstadion, Hannover, 11.10.1997

4-3 (0-0)
Helmer 64., Bierhoff 73., 90., Marschall 86. / Kohler og 55., Tare 80., Vata 87.

Team: Kahn – Thon – Kohler (c) – Reuter, Helmer, Heinrich – Häßler, Möller, Kuntz (72. Marschall) – Bierhoff, Bobić (60. Tarnat)

Goal Info:

0-1 Albanian winger Mahir Halili charges at pace down the right flank, evading Thomas Helmer’s desperate sliding challenge before sending a cross into the German box. Jürgen Kohler appears to have it covered, but with Igli Tare lurking behind him completely mistimes his header to send the ball into his own net past the static Oliver Kahn.

1-1 Andreas Möller finds subsitute Michael Tarnat in space out on the left, and the Bayern man has plenty of time to send in a nicely-weighted left-foot cross into the Albanian penalty area. Having charged up towards the six-yard box, Helmer looks marginally offside as he dives forward to power the ball past Fotaq Strakosha.

2-1 Olaf Thon finds Thomas Häßler out on the left inside the Albanian half, and the little number ten shows great skill to cut inside and and dance past three opponents. Having made his way into the penalty area, Häßler puts a left-footed cross into the six-yard box which is met brilliantly by the leaping Oliver Bierhoff.

2-2 Picking up possession just inside the German half, Alban Bushi dinks a tempting ball into the eighteen yard-box. Tare chases it down, muscles past the unfortunate Kohler and keeps one step ahead of Thon before chipping the ball nicely over the advancing Kahn with his left foot.

3-2 A lazy Arjan Xhumba is dispossessed by Tarnat, and the substitute delivers his second telling left-footed cross of the evening. The ball is squared low into the box, and fellow sub Olaf Marshall slides in what what is his first touch of the match to execute the perfect finish with his right foot.

3-3 Albania win a short corner on the right, and Bushi combines well Bledar Kola to engineer a well-worked ball into the German box. Lurking just behind the penalty spot is Albanian skipper Rudi Vata, whose hooked right-footed shot manages to evade everyone and sneak into the low left-hand corner past the diving Kahn.

4-3 Möller rolls the ball left out to his left, and Tarnat languidly advances towards the edge of the Albanian penalty area. Some thirty yards out he sends in yet another well-timed cross, and Bierhoff materialises in between two opponents to send a firm downward header past Strakosha and into the left-hand corner of the net.

Final Group Table

GermanyGermany (Q)10640239+1422
UkraineUkraine (QP)10622106+420
Northern IrelandNorthern Ireland10145610-47

Other results: Northern Ireland 0-1 Ukraine; Armenia 0-0 Portugal; Ukraine 2-1 Portugal; Northern Ireland 1-1 Armenia; Albania 0-3 Portugal; Portugal 1-0 Ukraine; Albania 1-1 Armenia; Northern Ireland 2-0 Albania; Albania 0-1 Ukraine; Northern Ireland 0-0 Portugal; Ukraine 2-1 Northern Ireland; Armenia 0-0 Northern Ireland; Ukraine 1-1 Armenia; Portugal 2-0 Albania; Ukraine 1-0 Albania; Portugal 3-1 Armenia; Armenia 3-0 Albania; Albania 1-0 Northern Ireland; Armenia 0-2 Ukraine; Portugal 1-0 Northern Ireland.

Goals Summary: Bierhoff (6), Kirsten (5), Häßler, Klinsmann (3), Basler, Bobić, Helmer, Kuntz, Marschall, Möller (1). Total 23.

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