PARIS (AP) Two years on from perhaps his biggest disappointment in football, Mario Gomez staked a claim to lead Germany's misfiring attack at the European Championship.
Gomez, who wasn't picked for Germany's triumphant World Cup campaign in Brazil through poor form, scored his side's sole goal in a 1-0 victory over Northern Ireland on Tuesday.
''I always said to myself, that wasn't it. That doesn't work. My time with the national team can't be ended like that,'' Gomez said. ''I followed the guys on TV in 2014 and was a huge fan. But I always had the urge to return, to be there again. It's simply something special, a special team packed with world class players.''
Germany coach Joachim Loew opted for a more direct approach against Northern Ireland that involved giving Mario Goetze a freer role and Gomez his first start at the competition. Loew had preferred Goetze up front in the opening games.
Gomez made the breakthrough against Northern Ireland in the 30th minute when he played Mueller in, and followed up to accept the back-pass and score with a deflected shot.
The goal ensured that Germany topped Group C to play one of the third-place teams in the round of 16 in Lille on Sunday.
The 30-year-old is Germany's first forward to score at Euro 2016. In its first game, Germany had to rely on defender Shkodran Mustafi and midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger for its 2-0 win against Ukraine. The next game was a forgettable 0-0 draw against Poland.
Loew was fulsome in his praise of the striker.
''We didn't have a false nine but a real nine,'' he said through a translator. ''He occupied two or three defenders because he likes to stay in the center ... That was very important to occupy these players.
''We need a player in this position to create space for Mueller or Goetze. That's why Mueller had three or four chances.''
It has been hard road for Gomez. He was left out of Germany's World Cup-winning squad in 2014 after an injury-blighted season at Italian side Fiorentina. The injuries continued and Gomez wasn't called back to the national team until November 2015, by which time he was back in form at Turkish side Besiktas.
Gomez' 26 goals helped Besiktas win the Turkish league last season and earn a place in the Euro 2016 squad.
''One reason for the switch to Besiktas was that the coach clearly said, `We'll make you fit. And then you'll play, full stop.' It was a simple statement, especially in view of the European Championship,'' Gomez said before the tournament. ''I knew I needed to play through a season. And of course the luck not to get injured.''
On Tuesday he took his place with them again, to score his 28th goal in his 66th appearance.
''My ambition is greater than ever before. I want to win the tournament,'' Gomez said.