Germany's world class defender Mats Hummels believes Northern Ireland are capable of securing second place in World Cup qualifying Group C - and a play-off match for Russia 2018.
The Bayern Munich defender credited Michael O'Neill's men with a greatly improved performance in Tuesday's 2-0 defeat by the World champions in Hannover, compared to a 1-0 backs to the wall loss at the Euro 2016 finals in France in June when the Germans completely dominated.
Hummels and his superstar international team-mates have now played all three teams in Group C expected to challenge for second place behind Germany, after beating Norway and the Czech Republic both 3-0 in their opening World Cup qualifying games, and the 27-year-old insists Northern Ireland have the quality to finish just behind the World champions.
"I think Northern Ireland can definitely play for the second place in this group," insisted Hummels, who rejoined Bayern Munich last summer after eight years with Bundesliga rivals Borussia Dortmund.
"If you look at the results, the Czech Republic have just two points so there is a really good chance for Northern Ireland, with four points, to build on their start and maybe finish second if we win the group."
Northern Ireland are third in Group C with Germany top, ahead of surprise package and our next opponents Azerbaijan, at Windsor Park on November 11, after their shock win over Norway and a draw with the Czech Republic in Prague.
Hummels added: "I think every team except San Marino will believe they can finish second and Northern Ireland have shown against us they should be viewed like that.
"I hope, of course, we will make it into first place in the group and we are in a good position right now."
While Hummels and his centre back partner Jerome Boateng coasted through the Euro finals group match at the Parc des Princes last summer, they were given a much tougher examination at the HDI Arena in Germany on Tuesday night.
Northern Ireland's lone striker Josh Magennis and attacking midfielder Jamie Ward showed some nices touches, strength and pace to get behind them in the first half and create a few decent opportunities.
"I think it was a better performance (than the game in France); we scored just one goal in the game at the European Championships but we had more chances in the game in Paris," conceded Hummels.
"It was very tough to create chances this time but we had the luck to score two early goals and that was very important.
"We had to keep our patience and not try to do too much but I believe both teams were better than they were in France."
Despite losing two early goals through a brilliant finish from Julian Draxler and a glancing header from Sami Khedira following a powerful looping assist from Hummels, Northern Ireland rallied and defended stoutly with Jonny Evans, Aaron Hughes, Gareth McAuley, Lee Hodson and Shane Ferguson frustrating the Germans with expertly timed tackles and blocks.
The Germans started to lose their composure in front of goal during the second half, with substitute Ilkay Gundogan of Manchester City guilty of wasteful efforts.
Hummels continued: "We had three or four more good chances after we scored the goals and that was it for the rest of the game.
"Of course I think it was up to us to create opportunities and we had some really good chances but Northern Ireland defended very well."
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