Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland beaten by Germany but not bowed and can still make it to 2018 finals

By Steven Beacom

It was game over in Hannover early on. Northern Ireland were 2-0 down by the 17 minute mark.

At that stage the Green and White Army, all 1,800 of them inside the stadium and the fans watching the World Cup qualifier on television at home, were fearing the worst.

The German machine looked in the groove.

And Michael O'Neill's men had conceded twice for the first time since 2014.

The question was: how many more would the World champions score?

It was a triumph that the visitors kept Germany to nil in the final 73 minutes of the Group C clash.

While proud of his players for digging in in difficult circumstances, what disappointed manager O'Neill was that Germany's first goal could have been avoided, and the second one should have been.

Julian Draxler fired in number one on 13 minutes after the ball broke kindly to him and Northern Ireland's defenders didn't close down quickly enough. Moments later Sami Khedira netted from close range after the men in green failed to cope with a corner.

O'Neill takes great pride in Northern Ireland's set pieces at both ends of the pitch, so it was little wonder that he cut a frustrated figure on the bench when the Germans doubled their lead.

He knew the game was up.

There was going to be no famous victory like when Norman Whiteside scored the only goal in Hamburg in 1983.

Northern Ireland weren't going to nick a point either.

The best they could do was keep the score down and, to their credit, they did that manfully by putting their bodies on the line against the slickest international side around.

The Germans are brilliant to watch, breaking at speed and passing with precision. With Mesut Ozil and Toni Kroos pulling the strings for long periods, Northern Ireland were left chasing shadows.

But they did not give in, they did not fall apart.

That character and mental strength has been built into the team by O'Neill and was epitomised by Josh Magennis, who had been chosen to lead the line again after getting the nod from the start in Saturday's 4-0 victory over San Marino at Windsor Park.

Early on Magennis was being outfought and out-thought by the magnificent Mats Hummels. Hardly surprising given that the battle between the two was effectively Charlton v Bayern Munich. Magennis, though, gamely battled on and as the half progressed he gave the world class centre-back a few things to think about.

In that first half Jamie Ward had the usual fire in his belly trying to upset the opposition, Steven Davis showed glimpses of his quality and Lee Hodson had some decent moments, while in the second period Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley came to the fore as the home side tried to increase their advantage.

Even before the Group C matches kicked off, all involved expected Germany to qualify for the 2018 World Cup finals as table toppers.

They are on a mission to get there as quickly as possible having won three games out of three, scoring eight goals and conceding none.

Despite last night's defeat, Northern Ireland can still join them and re-create last night's Will Grigg sing-a-long with the German supporters in Moscow.

O'Neill's men are third in the group with four points ahead of both Norway and the Czech Republic after three games.

Azerbaijan, on seven points, are in the play-off spot at present. Northern Ireland play them at Windsor on November 11.

A home win is a must and if O'Neill's side come good in Belfast, World Cup qualification is very much on.

We can still dare to dream.

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