Thomas Mueller and Kyle Lafferty’s careers are worlds apart in terms of achievement but on Monday both players scored vital goals that took Germany and Northern Ireland respectively to within touching distance of next year’s Euro 2016 finals.
A double by World Cup and Champions League winner Mueller inspired Germany to a 3-2 away win over Scotland which leaves the Scots struggling to even secure a play-off place for those finishing third.
Lafferty, who can’t even get a place in the starting line-up for English Premier League side Norwich, grabbed a goal in stoppage-time for the Northern Irish to force a 1-1 draw with Hungary and leave them top of their group, a point ahead of Romania with the Hungarians four points adrift and two games remaining.
A win at home to hapless bottom of the table Greece next time will be enough for Northern Ireland to reach their first ever European Championships and first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup.
Portugal too are close to a place in France after a late winner by Miguel Veloso saw them beat Albania 1-0 and top the table, four points clear of the third-placed Albanians with both of them having two matches.
Mueller’s brace plus one from Ilkay Gundogan — set up by the indefatigable Mueller — eventually saw off the combative Scots, who had twice equalised.
The world champions’ stylish performance maintained Germany’s extraordinary record of never having lost in their last 71 competitive internationals when they have scored first.
German coach Joachim Loew said that he felt his side had deserved the three points.
“This match was anything but easy for large stretches of the game but I think we largely controlled it and winning was well-deserved,” the World Cup winning coach said.
“I’m proud to say we’ve taken a big step towards France 2016.”
His Scotland counterpart Gordon Strachan praised his players despite a return of no points form their last two games, the 1-0 loss to Georgia last Friday having been a hammer blow.
“Whatever you think, over the two games, they’ve put in some amount of work,” said Strachan.
“There is something inside them all that drives them on. They can be proud of their performances.”
Northern Ireland’s hopes of joining the likes of England and Iceland in the finals were briefly put in danger by Michael McGovern’s desperate goalkeeping error.
The 31-year-old — who has been outstanding in the qualifying matches up till now — somehow allowed Balazs Dzsudzsak’s free-kick through his hands and Richard Guzmics was there to tap the ball into the net.
Any chance of at least taking a point looked to have disappeared with two moments of stupidity by experienced defender Chris Baird, who committed two fouls in as many minutes and was sent off by Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir.
However, there was yet more drama to come as Lafferty snaffled an equaliser — his seventh of the campaign — as he seized on another goalkeeping error, this time by veteran Hungarian Gabor Kiraly, to keep the Northern Irishmen’s noses in front in the race to qualify for France.
“We have two games left and we need one more push,” said Lafferty. “The fans came here for a party but the champagne is on ice.
“The squad are willing to fight to the end. This team doesn’t know when to stop working.”
Their southern neighbours the Republic of Ireland kept alive their hopes of finishing runners-up behind Germany with a gutsy 1-0 win over Georgia.
A sublime piece of trickery by Jeff Hendrick in the second-half proved the difference, as he outfoxed one defender, nutmegged another, beat yet another and then delivered the perfect ball for Jon Walters to tuck away.
Their win was crucial as Poland cruised to an 8-1 victory over Gibraltar, though the underdog visitors at least had a consolation of getting on the scoresheet through Jake Gosling.