Belfast Telegraph

Comment: Germany defeat was painful but this was a night to be proud of Northern Ireland's efforts

Last line: Northern Ireland’s Bailey Peacock-Farrell pulls off
another great save to foil Germany
Last line: Northern Ireland’s Bailey Peacock-Farrell pulls off another great save to foil Germany
Game plan: Michael O’Neill guides from the sidelines

By Steven Beacom

It's the hope that kills you. As the half-time whistle blew at Windsor Park, 18,000 raucous Northern Ireland fans inside the stadium believed their heroes could pull off a monumental shock against Germany.

In that opening 45, the Green and White Army had witnessed one of the finest all round performances during Michael O'Neill's incredible reign. The home side, playing like their lives depended on the result, should have been ahead at the break.

This wasn't old style backs to the wall stuff - this was Northern Ireland going toe to toe with a global footballing giant playing in a dynamic, daring fashion.

It was exciting and exhilarating with every single man in green giving every ounce of effort they had. The Germans were rattled and there was a feeling in the air that they would go home shocked in September like England and Spain in the past.

Three minutes into the second period, Joachim Low's men upped the ante, played at a quicker tempo and scored a blistering goal through Marcel Halstenberg gloriously lashing in with his left foot. Even the outstanding Bailey Peacock-Farrell, who had saved virtually everything else, couldn't keep out that rocket.

A clever injury time finish from the dangerous Serge Gnabry gave the Germans a 2-0 win and a scoreline that O'Neill's side didn't deserve in a compelling Euro 2020 qualifier that leaves Northern Ireland's chances of qualifying from the group on the extremely slim side.

Bottom line - O'Neill's team are going to have to go to Germany and crush them or overcome Holland in the upcoming head to head.

There will be no giving up from Northern Ireland. Even when they went behind last night and were under the cosh for a 15 minute period after Halstenberg's hammer blow, they refused to wilt and could have equalised.

Defeat was painful but this was a night to be proud of O'Neill and his players.

Ultimately it came down to those big moments captain Steven Davis and the manager talked about on the eve of the game.

Given the performance, it almost seems cruel to say that when those big moments came Northern Ireland weren't up to the task.

In the first half, Conor Washington had two huge chances but wasn't clinical enough, allowing Manuel Neuer to save when free in the box after excellent pressing from team-mates to win the ball high up the pitch. Then the German defence somehow kept the ball out with the Hearts ace looking certain to pounce from close range after a wicked Dallas cross was fumbled by Neuer.

In the second period, the brilliant Dallas fired wide after sensational wing play from substitute Gavin Whyte.

Those chances came and went. In contrast, the Germans took two that came their way. That's high level football.

And yet there was so much to enjoy from O'Neill's side.

With a mixture of sheer will and wizardry, Dallas and Corry Evans were combining brilliantly down the right flank, creating havoc for the Germans and openings for their team-mates. The superb Paddy McNair, who could have been awarded a penalty late on, joined in too.

Amid one of the stormiest atmospheres at Windsor in recent years, there was the calming influence of Davis in the middle of the park.

O'Neill's team kept their shape and discipline for most of the first period but, when they were breached, some good old desperate defending came into play with Dallas, Craig Cathcart, Jonny Evans and Jamal Evans doing everything they could do keep the ball out - blocks, tackles, headers, clearances you name it.

The tireless George Saville took a rasping shot to the head for the cause. Even when the Germans made it through to the last line, Peacock-Farrell produced excellent saves, a few that left Low's side dumbfounded. This may be a German team in transition but they still have class players.

The Dutch have just as many which is why it was always going to be difficult for Northern Ireland to qualify from this group.

O'Neill's men may have to rely on a back door route to the Euro 2020 finals. They would certainly enhance the tournament if they got there.

Hope springs eternal.

Belfast Telegraph

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