Football: Good omen in Germans' poor display

Germany have reached the World Cup finals as usual - but once again they had to survive a scare before booking their place.

Oliver Bierhoff, who played an important part in their hard-fought 4- 3 victory over Albania, with two goals including a last-minute header, said Saturday's thrilling final qualifier in Hanover had reminded him of an old story. "I hope it's a good sign because it was just like for the 1990 World Cup," said Bierhoff. "In our last game we also needed a draw and we also frightened ourselves before winning."

That was against Wales, when Germany pulled back from one goal down and an imminent exit to win 2-1. They went on to win the tournament in Italy for their third world title, after 1954 and 1974.

On Saturday a draw at home to Albania had seemed merely a formality and, despite the absence of key players such as Jurgen Klinsmann and Matthias Sammer, Germany seemed to be controlling the situation until the 55th minute. Then Jurgen Kohler, the captain in Klinsmann's absence, intercepted a cross intended for the Albanian striker Mahir Halili with a diving header which left his goalkeeper, Oliver Kahn, helpless.

Germany soon woke up with two goals in quick succession by Thomas Helmer and Bierhoff. When Igli Tare exploited a blunder by Kohler to equalise for the visitors, the European champions promptly responded with a goal from close range by Olaf Marschall.

With three minutes remaining, Germany were leading 3-2 and thought they had won. But incredibly, Albania, rooted to the bottom of the Group Nine table with just four goals in nine games, came back again and Rudi Vata penetrated a porous defence to level the tie.

Bierhoff, who scored both goals in Germany's 2-1 win over the Czech Republic in the European Championship final at Wembley last year, eventually put the issue beyond doubt with a powerful header from a Michael Tarnat cross in the dying moments. "We certainly did not look like World Cup favourites," Germany's coach, Berti Vogts, admitted afterwards.

There were no goals but just as much tension in Athens, where Denmark qualified for the finals and eliminated Greece with a 0-0 draw that sent 70,000 despondent home supporters home with their heads bowed.

The draw left the Danes top of Group One with 17 points, two more than Croatia, who won 3-1 in Slovenia to reach the play-offs. Greece, who would have won the group if they had beaten the Danes, finished third with 14 points.

"It was a dream that didn't come true," the Greek coach, Costas Poluychroniou, said. "We tried to score, had many chances in the second half but failed. I congratulate Denmark."

The match was interrupted in the 74th minute when frustrated Greek fans hurled dozens of flares that made play impossible. The air cleared after about five minutes and the match restarted. In the last minute, Alekos Alexandris failed to beat the Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel in a one-on-one encounter,

The other dramatic finish was in Group Three in Helsinki, where Vilmos Sebok scrambled in a last-minute goal to earn Hungary a 1-1 draw against Finland and deprive the Finns of a play-off place.