Joachim Löw says Germany's World Cup qualifier against Northern Ireland in Belfast is like a 'cup final.' Defender Jerome Boateng is set to make his first start in 11 months against the 'Green & White Army.'
German national team coach Joachim Löw has confirmed that Bayern Munich defender Jerome Boateng will return to the starting line-up for Thursday's "cup final" against Northern Ireland.
The Nationalmannschaft only require a point from the game in Belfast to qualify from Group C and win the right to defend their World Cup title in Russia next summer, and Boateng is set to line up for Germany for the first time in eleven months.
"I didn't realize that [my last game] was so long ago!" Boateng told reporters in the Northern Irish capital. "So that makes me even happier to be back in the national team. It's always difficult when you have to watch the other lads playing."
"Jerome has signaled that he feels good after his long injury lay-off," added coach Löw. "We have to be careful not to over-burden him but I certainly envisage that he'll start."
Problems up front
Coincidentally, Boateng's last appearance for Germany also came against Northern Ireland when the two sides met in Hannover in October last year. Goals from Julian Draxler and Sami Khedira gave the world champions a 2-0 win – the only two goals Northern Ireland have conceded in qualifying.
And with main strikers Mario Gomez and Timo Werner absent through injury, the responsibility of breaking through the stubborn Northern Irish defense is likely to fall to Borussia Mönchengladbach's Lars Stindl and Hoffenheim's Sandro Wagner.
"Both are an option and I might even play them both together up front," revealed Löw. "But we are dangerous in attack whoever plays. We've got sharper in front of goal, too."
Elsewhere, Hertha Berlin's Marvin Plattenhardt is most likely to replace the injured Jonas Hector at left back, while Marc-Andre ter Stegen will continue in goal in place of Manuel Neuer. Toni Kroos, Sebastian Rudy and Leon Goretzka could all start in midfield but Borussia Dortmund duo Julian Weigl and Mario Götze have remained at home.
"We have a responsibility to qualify directly for the World Cup and to prepare ourselves as well as possible for Russia," insisted Löw.
Can history repeat itself?
Germany haven't lost a World Cup qualifier away from home in 83 years but they did lose a European Championship qualifier in Belfast in 1982. It was a famous victory for the Green and White Army which they will be hoping to repeat in order to keep alive dreams of a first World Cup appearance since 1986.
"I still remember that evening [in 1982] when Ian Stewart scored the winner at Windsor Park!" said former Northern Ireland international Jimmy Nicholl in the Belfast Telegraph. "We had to face wave after wave of German attacks but we stood firm – and that's what our current team can do on Thursday."
Under coach Michael O'Neill, Northern Ireland are currently second behind Germany but still need points in order to qualify for the play-offs as one of the best eight group runners-up and Löw knows that his team face a tough test.
"There is a lot at stake and we are the top two teams, so the game has the air of a cup final to it," he said. "Northern Ireland have nothing to lose. They play very disciplined football and have kept seven clean sheets. That speaks volumes."
"We are looking forward to a fantastic atmosphere and a buoyant crowd."