Reigning champions Germany booked their place at next year’s World Cup with a 3-1 victory over Northern Ireland on Thursday.
Needing just a point in Belfast to top Group C, Joachim Low’s side overcame a number of key absences, as well as a spirited home side, to make it nine wins from nine in qualifying.
Despite being without World Cup winners Mario Gotze, Sami Khedira, Manuel Nuer and Mesut Ozil – as well as Timo Werner – Germany demonstrated their strength in depth as two first-half goals saw off their nearest rivals on the road.
Sebastian Rudy let fly with a right-footed rocket inside two minutes to score his maiden international goal, his wonder strike briefly silencing a boisterous crowd inside Windsor Park.
Any hopes of the hosts marking Michael O’Neill’s 50th match in charge with an upset disappeared when Sandro Wagner – starting up top in place of the absent Werner – spun away from his marker to curl in a second in the 21st minute.
Joshua Kimmich added a third for Germany, volleying in from a tight angle in the closing minutes, before Josh Magennis nodded in a late consolation for Northern Ireland with the last kick of the game.
— Germany (@DFB_Team_EN) October 5, 2017
Northern Ireland had not conceded in qualifying since a 2-0 defeat against the same opponents in Hannover last October, winning five on the trot to make sure of a top-two finish. However, their slim hopes of catching the group leaders suffered a blow inside two minutes with Rudy’s long-range stunner.
The Bayern Munich midfielder spectacularly broke his duck for Germany by thrashing a first-time shot beyond Michael McGovern, the ball curling away from the goalkeeper to find the net via a deflection off the upright.
Germany’s second was almost as impressive, Wagner cleverly turning the defender tight to his back to create the chance to curl home a left-footed effort from the edge of the penalty area.
The goal was a reward for Wagner’s persistence, the Hoffenheim forward having twice gone close previously with headers, the first saved at close range by McGovern before the woodwork kept out a calculated flick from Kimmich’s teasing cross.
Despite barely getting a kick for long periods in the first half, Northern Ireland went close to halving the deficit when Corry Evans’ goal-bound poke was blocked by the advancing Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
— OptaFranz (@OptaFranz) October 5, 2017
Yet the close shave failed to be a catalyst for a second-half fightback as Germany resumed their dominance immediately after the break.
McGovern produced a finger-tip save on the stretch to turn a Thomas Muller header wide, while substitute Leroy Sane wastefully blasted over with just the goalkeeper to beat.
Conor Washington saw a rising left-footed drive clip the woodwork and go over before Kimmich put the game beyond doubt with Germany’s third, the full-back inadvertently teed up at the back post by Jonny Evans’ clearing header.
Northern Ireland at least had the last word through Magennis, who reacted quickly after Gareth McAuley had headed a deep corner back across. The goal was just reward for their vocal support, although they will have to negotiate the play-offs if they are to join their opponents in Russia.
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