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Michael McGovern's heroics keep Northern Ireland Euro 2016 dream alive

Northern Ireland 0-1 Germany

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland have only gone and done it. Michael O'Neill's men are in the Euro 2016 knockout stages. Let's roar that out again... OUR WEE COUNTRY IS IN THE KNOCKOUT STAGES OF EURO 2016. This manager and his sensational squad of players just keep on making history.

And believe me they are not finished yet.

Northern Ireland may be in the sweet 16, but they will now be thinking about reaching the quarter-finals.

To do that they will have to beat hosts France or Wales.

Anything is possible with this Northern Ireland side.

Michael McGovern proved that in Paris last night with one of the finest goalkeeping performances ever witnessed in international football when he stood firm in the face of a German onslaught.

Northern Ireland are going through as one of the top four third placed group sides.

They are in the knockout stages with two groups still to finish because of a superior goal difference.

We can all thank the magnificent McGovern for that.

Had he not performed such heroics in the Parc des Princes, Northern Ireland would still be sweating on their place in the competition.

Northern Ireland may have been beaten in the French capital, but they were not bowed. Never bowed.

The outfield players ran themselves into the ground and McGovern stood so tall by the end of the evening he was bigger than the Eiffel Tower.

If he had wanted to take a walk across the River Seine I'm certain the Fermanagh man could have done it.

What a performance against the side that won the World Cup in Brazil two years ago. Best display of his career against the best team on the planet.

After a couple of average performances in their earlier group matches, Germany played like World Champions last night yet McGovern kept them at bay with save after save after save.

Only once did the Germans get past him and that was after Mario Gomez's drive deflected over the Enniskillen native into the net in the first half.

Northern Ireland's iconic World Cup goalkeepers Pat Jennings and Harry Gregg would have been proud to have produced the performance that McGovern put on against Germany.

O'Neill kept the same starting XI that did so superbly in the win over Ukraine last week.

In front of McGovern was Aaron Hughes, winning his 102nd cap, Gareth McAuley, Craig Cathcart and Jonny Evans operating in a four man defence.

The midfield three of captain Steven Davis, Oliver Norwood and Corry Evans had support from wide men Jamie Ward and Stuart Dallas with Conor Washington leading the attack.

The German team list was packed with superstars from Manuel Neuer between the sticks to Mats Hummels in defence, Toni Kroos in the middle of the park and Thomas Muller beyond him. There was also a place for Mario Gotze, who scored the winning goal in the World Cup final against Argentina.

What a side to face in the glorious setting of the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris and what a challenge for the Northern Ireland players, cheered on by the Green and White Army.

The fans were as outstanding as McGovern.

Like a top of the range BMW Germany moved into top gear in a high class first half display against Northern Ireland.

O'Neill's team actually started well and looked assured but once the Germans took control it was one way traffic and, but for the alert reactions of McGovern, the men in green would have found themselves three behind after just 12 minutes.

First he made a cracking stop to deny Muller, who was clear on goal after a slick move ripped the Northern Ireland defence apart, and then Mesut Ozil and Gotze were frustrated by the Hamilton netminder.

The World Champions were causing problems for their opponents all over the pitch with their precision passing and magical movement with Kroos and Ozil pulling the strings. Muller fired wide and then hit the post with a diving header as Northern Ireland hung on.

Low's men were on a high and deservedly took the lead on the half hour. Ozil had the room to glide forward and find Gomez, who played a neat pass to Muller. With Cathcart and Hughes converging on the Bayern Munich superstar, he played the ball back to Gomez, whose strike from inside the box deflected off McAuley and over McGovern who had no chance.

Moments later Muller was unfortunate again, hitting the bar, and before the break Gomez scuffed his shot when free in the box.

Northern Ireland were relieved to go into the break only one goal down.

The same pattern continued after the break with McGovern marvellous and Germany missing chances. The Northern Ireland number one saved superbly from Gotze who then slid a shot wide from close range when he should have hit the target.

There was better to come from McGovern to keep out Sami Khedira and then a late Gomez header. That was a spectacular stop.

There were blocks from the defenders throughout and unwavering spirit from O'Neill's team. Shattered at the end last night, they will have woken up this morning ready to go again.

Now bring on the knockout stages. Northern Ireland's heroes will be ready. The party in France isn't over yet.

Belfast Telegraph