Gareth McAuley: It was like mission impossible against Germany
Northern Ireland defender Gareth McAuley has revealed that facing Germany on Tuesday night in Paris was akin to taking on mission impossible.
The World Cup holders dazzled and dominated in the Parc des Princes, but the brilliance of Michael McGovern in the Northern Ireland goal kept the score down to 1-0 as both sides qualified for the knockout stages.
The 36-year-old West Brom defender has come up against some classy outfits in his time at club and international level, but as far as he was concerned the Germans were up there with the very best.
By the end of the game all of the Northern Ireland players were shattered after chasing the men in white shirts for virtually the entire game.
"I was all right for the first two and a half minutes," joked McAuley.
"It was one of the toughest games of football I've ever played. Their movement is incredible, the timing of their pass, the timing of their runs, the quality of the forward runners. It was impossible to compete with at times."
With the Germans threatening to run riot in the first half after taking the lead, McAuley stated that it was crucial that Michael O'Neill's men dug in to the break.
"It was just a case of keeping going until half time really and then asking us what we felt we wanted to do," said McAuley.
"I don't think any changes to the system would have done enough really, they had that much dominance.
"It was a 1-0 defeat but after that it felt like we got something from the game.
"They're very, very good! It's the way they move the ball.
"We wanted to play on the counter-attack but it's not very often they give the ball away so you can't do that. They were stretching us and moving us about and making us run and run.
"When you do get the ball back after they've made you run that much you're tired and what can you do with it?
"Their wide players would come in off the line and their timing coming in off the line was incredible. You really couldn't do anything about it. They run you away, create space for team-mates, then they come in off the line and you're trying to face them up.
"At the same time Mesut Ozil finds pockets everywhere and some of his one-touch passing, laying balls into players making forward runs is, well ... It's just a catch 22 situation all the time," continued an exasperated but hugely impressed McAuley.
Quizzed on Germany's attacking formation which at times appeared to be 2-2-6 when they surged forward, McAuley said: "Both their full backs are pushed so far on that it's nearly six against six across the back and they're still keeping and moving the ball.
"They make you run and run, wear you down and then wear you out. The timing of the passing and the weight of the passes they play - especially Ozil and Toni Kroos - is top notch. That's why they all play for the very best clubs."
Regardless, both sides are in the last 16 with McAuley expressing his gratitude to both goalkeeper McGovern and the Northern Ireland fans for their superhuman efforts in Paris.
"What the crowd give us is unbelievable," said the former Coleraine hero.
"They just give you something extra to keep going and dig in. Hopefully we can give them another party at the weekend.
"And fortunately Micky was on absolute fire behind us and pulled off incredible last ditch saves that kept us in the game, that kept us fighting.
"Some of his saves were incredible and it couldn't happen to a nicer guy. He was a bit embarrassed in the dressing room when we gave him a round of applause and all patted him on the back but that's a mark of him and how humble he is."
On the team as a whole, McAuley said it was a wonderful time to be part of it.
He said: "The progression over the last two and a half years has been brilliant but the foundations were laid in the World Cup qualification group when players were playing in their first international competition and learning.
"A lot of the lads have blossomed. It's a great time for Northern Irish football and to be involved."