As the chants of “Will Grigg’s on fire” tore across the Parc des Princes ahead of kick-off in Northern Ireland’s Euro 2016 match against Germany, a different cult-hero striker was celebrated at the other end of the ground.
The largest cheer as the Germany team boomed over the tannoy system came as Mario Gomez rounded out the XI.
During the three years and nine months between his 25th and 26th goals for Die Mannschaft, Gomez felt like a man out of time in this generation of beautiful German footballers – the artisan unable to keep pace with the artists.
Somewhat symbolically, he moved on at the start of Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich tenure – a period that would change the tune of his country’s football and persuade national team boss Joachim Low to dance to its beat, all the way to World Cup glory in 2014.
Gomez, a curious figure whose muscularity can be imposing one second and cumbersome the next, endured an injury ravaged write-off of a spell with Fiorentina. His loan move to Besiktas last close-season had all the hallmarks of a man being put out to pasture.
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But 26 goals established him as the top scorer in the Turkish Super Lig and fired Besiktas to a first title in seven seasons. Low could no longer ignore the man he tossed away so easily.
Still, he arrived in France as the man for whom people would “push the button” if he scored. He was not going to start any games. The lack of an heir to Miroslav Klose made him a default selection.
The nature of last Thursday’s 0-0 draw against Poland changed all that. Opposition boss Adam Nawalka conceded he was happy to give Germany 70 per cent of position. His team were not scared. Germany’s Toni Kroos-inspired passing patterns were decorative and not destructive.
Something had to change and, against a Northern Ireland side buoyant from emulating Germany’s opening 2-0 win over Ukraine, Low took the plunge and reinvested long-lost faith in Gomez.
The prodigal poacher was back – serve up the fatted calf! Or at least have Mesut Ozil mangle the senses of the Northern Ireland backline entirely.
Germany did not become anything remotely resembling a route-one team with Mighty Mario in their midst, but he instantly gave much-needed variety to their attacks.
Northern Ireland’s centre-backs simply could not ignore Gomez, meaning Kroos settled into his velvet orchestration of the piece and Ozil threw around defence-splitting passes as if they were bags of confetti at a wedding.
Bayern Munich youngster Joshua Kimmich, preferred at right-back to Benedikt Howedes, showcased an exquisite range of passing to feed both Germany’s playmakers and Gomez’s appetite for a tussle.
One muscular chest down from a raking Kimmich pass saw Thomas Muller drive wide. The same player hit post and bar, while the ailing Mario Gotze fluffed his lines twice in quick succession to prompt an early second-half substitution.
Northern Ireland goalkeeper Michael McGovern was an exceptional irritant for Germany but they had a specialist for the only goal in the 29th minute.
Gomez laid the ball into Muller and offered an expert demonstration of the centre forward’s craft. As defenders Craig Cathcart and Aaron Hughes scrambled along with McGovern to halt Muller, Gomez held his run and occupied that pocket of space where everything suddenly makes sense for strikers.
— Germany (@DFB_Team_EN) June 21, 2016
Muller checked back, passed to Gomez and his shot deflected home off Gareth McAuley. An ugly goal? He seldom scores any other kind.
A scuffed, bobbling attempt for a second before the break and some misses afterwards offered another viewing of Gomez the lummox, a reminder of why he was jettisoned. But now, against the odds, he feels far too important for that.
Grigg looked on as an unused substitute, his Euro 2016 fire remaining unlit. He should join the rest of us in pushing the button.
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