Euro 2016 qualifiers roundup: Muller menace sinks Scotland
World champions Germany, 3/1 favourites with Coral to win Euro 2016 outright, edged Scotland in Dortmund thanks to Thomas Muller’s brace to get their qualification campaign off with a win.
Ikechi Anya made things interesting by netting the pick of the goals at the Westfalenstadion, though Charlie Mulgrew was sent off in stoppage time for a cheap second booking. Victory for Joachim Low’s lads came at a price, however, as Marco Reus, just back in the fold after missing the World Cup through injury, was helped off after twisting his ankle late on.
Although Gordon Strachan’s quest to qualify from Group D for the France finals started with defeat, there was plenty to suggest they will be in mix here. Germany were far from convincing, relying on dependable Muller to be in the right place at the right time.
Low went without an out-and-out centre forward, preferring the diagonal runs from Bayern Munich poacher Muller off the right flank to do the damage. Wrong-footed left back Steven Whittaker struggled to stop these.
Muller got between Alan Hutton and Russell Martin, an injury doubt for Scotland prior to the match with a groin strain, to nod in the opener from makeshift right back Sebastian Rudy’s centre.
It was the flanks of defence which remain a major concern for Low, with normal central midfielder Rudy losing Watford wideman Anya for the equaliser. Erik Durm, meanwhile, had a torrid time against Angel Di Maria in Germany’s 4-2 friendly loss to Argentina prior to this encounter.
The Borussia Dortmund full back once again struggled to contain first Barry Bannan and then Steven Naismith, when he moved out wide. Durm brought down the in-form Everton forward when he looked through on goal and was lucky to only be booked.
Schalke skipper Benedikt Howedes was also involved in an off the ball incident with Naismith, but the Norwegian officials missed this. Die Mannschaft’s defence is certainly looking far from solid since the international retirements of versatile skipper Philipp Lahm and giant centre half Per Mertesacker.
What Low will be looking forward to is having Mats Hummels, recently appointed captain of Dortmund, back in the heart of the Germany backline. Scotland being level seldom lasted, however, as they failed to deal with a right wing corner and Muller pounced.
Steven Fletcher gave a timely reminder of how handy his link-up play can be, when the Sunderland striker came off the bench to set Anya away with a reverse pass. Naismith proved more dangerous when switched from centre forward to wide right, and would relish playing off a proper frontman whether from this side or in the number 10 position.
There will be disappointment for Strachan in the nature of the Germany winner Scotland conceded, but there were lessons for how to unsettle Low’s lads for other teams to take heed of here. When the visitors went direct they looked uncomfortable, and until Die Mannschaft can field some proper full backs this will continue to be an issue for them against top opposition.
It’s even-money that Scotland get out of a group, which also pits them against fellow Celts and a prolific Pole.
Further east in Tbilisi, Aiden McGeady bagged a brace which got the Republic of Ireland’s bid to reach a second successive European Championship finals off to a winning start. The Everton wideman struck first with a quarter of the game gone only for Martin O’Neill’s men to see their lead cancelled out before half time.
McGeady scored again just prior to second half stoppage time to snatch all three points. The Republic are now odds-on at 4/6 to be in France the summer after next.
Elsewhere in Group D, Bayern new boy Robert Lewandowski grabbed a four-goal haul as the stand-in Poland skipper led his side to a 7-0 victory over Gibraltar, who played their first-ever competitive international here.
In Budapest, meanwhile, Niall McGinn and Kyle Lafferty netted late goals as Northern Ireland turned things around to get their first away win in four years. Hungary had led through former Watford frontman Tamas Priskin, who arrived off the bench at half time.
Qualifying Group F also contains Euro 2004 winners Greece, beaten by Romania in Claudio Ranieri’s first match in charge, and Finland, who came from behind to defeat the Faroe Islands. If Michael O’Neill’s team can take points off these teams on the road, and strengthen home form, then they have a great chance of qualifying for Euro 2016, which Northern Ireland are 2/1 chances to do.