Spain can reign supreme in finals
After enduring a footballing masterclass from Group F table toppers Spain in balmy Gran Canaria last night, Northern Ireland captain Aaron Hughes has tipped Luis Aragones' men to go on and win next year's European Championship.
Northern Ireland's hopes of qualifying for their first major Championship final in over 20 years were dashed as a deflected Xavi goal seven minutes after half-time sealed victory for mighty Spain.
Nigel Worthington's men battled bravely to hold a Spain side who it seemed held on to the ball for 85 per cent of the game.
And when Northern Ireland's players did eventually receive possession, they were unable to create any chances as Spain hurriedly closed them down.
Xavi, Sergio Ramos, Iniesta, Senna, Siva and Arsenal's Fabregas were a pure joy to watch if you were a Spanish fan or neutral but for Northern Ireland players and fans it was pure agony as they demonstrated their unbelievable abilities on the ball.
Skills, Hughes believes will see Spain win their first ever major tournament.
"If they perform like that they must be considered one of the favourites to win the tournament next year. I could definitely see them winning it," conceded Hughes.
" There was not a weak side to their game and every player in the squad was pure quality.
"I certainly haven't played against a better side that performed as well collectively.
"It was relentless at times, they had so much of the ball and you were constantly looking over your shoulder as they came at you."
Hughes was naturally proud of his brave soldiers who went into the battle with him last night with qualification still alive.
His could feel his team-mates hurt at the final whistle but there was probably more dejection for him as captain that it came to an end as he had dreamt many times of leading Northern Ireland into next year's European Championship finals.
"It was so disappointing that we weren't able to win and qualify," added Hughes.
"But we have plenty to look back on fondly during this campaign.
"We knew it was going to be tough and I honestly believed going into the match that we had an excellent chance of beating Spain. Confidence was so high.
"The game though was just all about digging in and hopefully nicking one of the break or from a free-kick. Just wasn't meant to be."
Northern Ireland's record goalscorer David Healy was equally frustrated that our participation in the European Championships did not reach the finals stage.
He would dearly have loved to play on Europe's greatest international stage.
But he held his hands up that Spain were simply too good.
Healy said: "We always said we wanted to take it to the last game and that's what we did. I think the players have been a credit, and I hope the fans appreciate that.
"It was a difficult game to get into. Spain made six or seven changes, but it was optimistic thinking we could get a victory here. But you have to be brave and positive, and I think we were.
"But it says it all when, straight from kick-off, they kept the ball for about three minutes.
"That's the quality they have in their side."