Time for sleeping giants Germany to wake up
Misfiring giants must deliver to light up a dull tournament
NORTHERN IRELAND v GERMANY
(Tonight, 11.55pm, Singtel TV Ch 142 & StarHub TV Ch 220 - Eleven EURO)
Euro 2016 commentators are beginning to sound like well-meaning parents comforting a child who finished last on school sports day.
Never mind the obvious lack of quality, focus on the effort instead.
Admire the industry. Discuss the colourful costumes. Look at those shiny sports shoes and the trendy haircut.
Talk about the cheering supporters and the raucous national anthems. Talk about anything other than the anti-climactic performance.
Euro 2016, it is fair to say, is not quite living up to expectations.
Like the Germans, the tournament is awash with proven pedigree and glittering superstars, making the underlying dullness hard to fathom.
Like the Germans, goals are proving hard to come by.
The competition isn't comatose, but its giants are still sleeping. Germany can wake up the Euros, but only if they can rouse a forward line from their slumber.
Just two goals in two games, with neither coming from a striker, betray a constellation of attacking stars yet to illuminate France.
Joachim Loew's problems are plentiful, but they essentially centre around the exasperating enigma that is Mario Goetze. He's a World Cup-winning national hero and their greatest nearly man.
He's a happy wanderer with no fixed abode, capable of playing up front, in the hole or either side of a forward three, without dominating any of the positions.
In the German media, the Goetze dilemma generates almost as much discussion as the Wayne Rooney conundrum, an obviously gifted footballer with a vital role to play. It's just that no one is really sure where.
Loew certainly isn't, not after two ineffective games against the Ukraine and Poland that leave the coach no closer to his definitive line-up ahead of the final Group C game against Northern Ireland tonight.
In trying to accommodate every leading forward, Loew is pleasing none.
Thomas Mueller arrived in France with 20 league goals in his swag and eager to pinch more in an average group ripe for plundering.
Instead, his wide-right position has isolated and irritated a voracious finisher who loves to feed off a totem pole up front.
But Goetze isn't Miroslav Klose, Lukas Podolski or even Mario Gomez.
His nimble footwork doesn't lend itself to aerial acrobatics with Mueller or aggressive one-twos around lumbering centre backs.
Mueller's exquisite timing usually relies on a tall, imposing grandfather clock, rather than a pocket watch.
Without a Velcro-like forward up front, Mueller, Mesut Oezil and Julian Draxler lack a discernible focal point.
Gomez makes for the most obvious swop, but the top scorer in the Turkish league last season remains a 30-year-old journeyman not blessed with the mobility or skill set of his teammates.
Loew's decision isn't clear-cut.
Northern Ireland's obdurate defence put in a tireless display against the Ukraine, where scorer Gareth McAuley was near faultless.
The West Brom centre back's no-nonsense approach suggests the more direct, conventional threat of Gomez might be preferred to Goetze's unpredictability.
In extra time of the World Cup final, Loew pulled substitute Goetze aside in the Maracana pressure cooker and told the then 22-year-old to show that he was better than Lionel Messi.
So he did. For a few, fleeting moments, Goetze walked with kings. Despite his admirable work-rate, Gomez can't do that.
Mueller is the other alternative, but the Bayern Munich forward prefers to cut inside for both club and country. Facing the goal suits his cerebral approach.
Besides, Northern Ireland's defensive line-up, which quickly morph into a back six with Oliver Norwood and Corry Evans offering support, are not likely to concede ground around the box.
Mueller's intellect and insight, his instinctive ability to make clinical incisions between fullbacks and centre backs, will be needed more than any bulldozing qualities he might possess as a target man.
Like Euro 2016 generally, a goal rush isn't expected.
The Northern Irish, still celebrating their first win in a major tournament in 34 years, have an outside chance of qualification.
They will defend for their lives and pray for a miracle.
Loew doesn't need a miracle, but a clear attacking strategy ahead of the knockout stages would be handy.
Northern Ireland are not so much opponents, as they are guinea pigs for a manager still in the hunt for a reliable goal source.
Loew has been here before, of course. He didn't hit upon a winning formula in Brazil until the quarter-finals, where he moved Philipp Lahm back into defence and deployed Toni Kroos in the linking midfield role.
Time is on his side, even if sections of the German public are not.
He could allay a nation's concerns if he settles on a forward line that utilise the collective strengths of Draxler, Oezil and Mueller.
If nothing else, jaded Euro 2016 followers would certainly appreciate the goals.
I do not expect that it’ll be a shooting fest for us. i wish it would be, but you have to be realistic.
— Germany’s Thomas Mueller, on facing a defensive Northern Ireland
We respect them, but do not fear them. Our game is all about working hard and not giving people time on the ball. That might be different to what Germany have experienced before.
— Northern Ireland forward Jamie Ward
BY THE NUMBERS
These two nations have met 14 times previously, with Germany winning eight to Northern Ireland's two.