Paul Ferguson: Why old pals Germany could help Northern Ireland fulfil Euro 2020 dream
In recent years, Germany and Northern Ireland have developed a mutual friendship. A long distance affair that started in the beautiful surroundings of Paris at the Euro 2016 finals extended to Hanover and Belfast during World Cup qualification.
The Germans are quite taken by little Northern Ireland.
Their players are captivated, and rather envious, by the incredible support the Green and White Army offer the men in green, Germany coach Joachim Low has respect for Michael O'Neill and what he has achieved with limited resources, while the German players speak favourably about their opponents, in particular keeper Michael McGovern, who produced a spectacular performance in the match between the two sides at the Euros.
But for all their smiles and polite references, Germany remain a dominant force over Northern Ireland. Three matches in the last three years - three victories for Low's side.
With Germany being drawn in Euro 2020 qualifying Group C alongside Northern Ireland, and considering their rejuvenated form where they have defeated the Netherlands and Belarus, while also hammering Estonia 8-0 in the last three months, the formbook does not suggest the men in green will turn the tide in their favour.
However, the Netherlands, despite all their skill, speed and superstars, have to be the target for Northern Ireland in this qualifying series. And Germany could play a key role in this.
Northern Ireland sit proudly at the top of Group C on a maximum of 12 points from their opening four games against Estonia and Belarus respectively. The Germans, having played only three, are clearly seen in the wing mirror. But the Dutch, due to their unavailability this international period because of the Nations League and the fact they lost to their arch rivals on match day two, are a massive nine points behind Northern Ireland.
Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.
On Friday, September 6 - 24 hours after Northern Ireland play Luxembourg at Windsor Park in a friendly - Green and White Army members will become supporters of Die Mannschaft for the evening as further defeat in Germany could seriously harm Holland's qualifying hopes.
Northern Ireland, as the players go off to enjoy summer this week, have the points in the bank.
With two teams qualifying from each group for the finals, Northern Ireland should turn what is now considered a three-way league with Germany and the Netherlands into a two-way battle with the Dutch for the right to reach the Euro finals.
Northern Ireland play the Germans at Windsor just three days after Ronald Koeman's men travel across the border. Then, in October, O'Neill will take his troops to Rotterdam before the return leg in Belfast four weeks later.
That is the match Northern Ireland, with the full backing of the Green and White Army, will be hoping to spring a surprise in. And the Netherlands still have to travel to Belarus, who are a proud nation and would love to claim the scalp of a top team.
When Northern Ireland travel to Frankfurt for the final game of the campaign, Germany may already have qualified, so will it really be in their interests to have the Netherlands, who have proven over the last year how dangerous they can be again on the international stage, at the Euro 2020 finals?
Northern Ireland may just stand a chance of securing a positive result if they are at 100%, enjoy a bit of good fortune and the Germans treat the match as a complete dead rubber with nothing to be gained.
However, we are assuming O'Neill will still be at the helm of Northern Ireland and not be snapped up by an ambitious club.
The autumn is shaping up to be a fascinating programme of games.
Northern Ireland, with their 12 points, are at least guaranteed to be in the mix going into the last two games of the qualifying series.
But will the Germans and Northern Ireland still be friends by then?