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Ruthless Germany deliver blow to NI's Euro hopes

Northern Ireland 0-2 Germany

So close: George Saville holds his head in his hands as Northern Ireland miss another great chance against Germany
So close: George Saville holds his head in his hands as Northern Ireland miss another great chance against Germany
Serge Gnabry makes it 2-0 near the finish

By Paul Ferguson

Four-time World champions Germany will return home today knowing they have been in a Belfast battle.

Brave and bold Northern Ireland pushed the mighty Germans all the way at Windsor Park last night, but a brilliant half volley finish from Marcel Halstenberg and a late striker form Serge Gnabry condemned Michael O'Neill's warriors to their first defeat in Euro 2020 qualifying.

On the night when captain marvel Steven Davis made his 113th international appearance to become Northern Ireland's most capped outfield player, every single player in a green shirt epitomised his battling qualities.

They gave their all, forced the Germans on the back foot and created numerous opportunities which sadly for the sell-out packed into the south Belfast venue they couldn't convert.

Germany, with this win go top of Group C, level alongside Northern Ireland on 12 points but with a greater goal difference.

While qualification for Northern Ireland may now appear a long, especially coming up twice against the classy Dutch and the Germans again in Frankfurt in their final three games, on this evidence O'Neill's men will fight the European superpowers all the way for those two top places.

With Michael Smith and Jordan Jones out injured and O'Neill preferring an extra midfielder to big Josh Magennis, Northern Ireland made three changes from the side that started the last qualifier against Belarus in June. George Saville, Niall McGinn and Stuart Dallas came in to the line-up with the Leeds United man given the right back role.

The crowd had heeded advice to arrive at the stadium and there was an electric atmosphere at kick-off. The noise levels were deafening.

The Germans, with 10 Champions League players on parade, as expected, had pace, strength and quality in abundance but the men in green were not going to be overawed, matching the visitors' tempo and causing numerous problems.

Dallas' long throws were an excellent weapon for Northern Ireland and on six minutes, Saville flicked but Washington could only direct his effort inches over the bar as Manuel Neuer watched on.

Then the Bayern Munich star was called on to race out from his line to make a fantastic save from Washington who attempted to dink it over him, after Toni Kroos had made an uncharacteristic error and the Hearts striker had been played in.

Northern Ireland, from one to 11, were showing plenty of heart, hunger and desire - winning their tackles, breaking up play, producing outstanding moments of skill and taking the game to the Germany.

As the half wore on, Germany were beginning to impose themselves and these were anxious moments for Northern Ireland as Timo Werner saw his effort deflected off Craig Cathcart for a corner and then from the resulting Toni Kroos set piece, Bailey Peacock Farrell had to be alert at the back post to deny Niklas Sule and Julian Brandt.

Northern Ireland were matching the Germans in every department on the pitch and there was a pulsating few moments of play when Davis, Jonny Evans, Dallas, Paddy McNair and Washington conjured up a number of attacking opportunities.

Low was forced into a change five minutes from the break when Matthias Ginter failed to recover from an injury he picked up during a Northern Ireland attack and was replaced by Bayer Leverkusen defender Tah.

On the stroke of half-time, after a terrific cross from Dallas, Washington, closely guarded by Tah, couldn't turn the ball into the net during a goalmouth scramble and then Peacock Farrell made a brilliant close range save from Werner.

For their incredible efforts during the first 45 minutes, Northern Ireland deserved to be going into the break at least on level terms. It meant the men in green have now not conceded a first half goal in their last six internationals at Windsor Park and they received a rapturous applause as they made their way to the dressing rooms.

But within three minutes of the restart, Northern Ireland's rearguard was finally breached. Peacock Farrell had made an excellent save from Lukas Klosterman in Germany's first attack of the second period, but he couldn't stop Halstenberg's thunderous half volley after a cross from Klostermann and the slightest of flick ons by Werner.

Northern Ireland struggled to recover from the body blow, they were under the cosh now, Saville was booked, and they needed Peacock Farrell to produce some fine saves to deny Werner and Marco Reus while Klostermann and Serge Gnabry failed to take advantage of decent opportunities.

O'Neill knew a change was needed and just before the hour mark brought on Cardiff winger Gavin Whyte for McGinn.

Suddenly Northern Ireland were back taking the game to Germany and McNair was annoyed not to be awarded a spot kick after going down under a challenge and then Whyte on 63 minutes, showed brilliant pace and skill to beat his man, despite being pulled back, dart into the box and pull it back for Dallas who could only shoot past Neuer and wide with the goal gaping.

Germany were frustrated at the being put on the back foot, Gnabry was booked for snapping at Washington and Low introduced Kai Havertz for Werner. His first contribution saw him head just wide from 10 yards out.

Magennis, with 20 minutes to go, took the place of Saville as O'Neill attempted to add a new attacking threat for Germany to deal with and when that didn't bring about an equaliser, Linfield's exciting young striker Shayne Lavery came on with eight minutes to go for Washington - who had run his heart out as the lone striker.

To emphasise the gap in the squads, Low threw on Juventus ace Emre Can as his final substitute.

Northern Ireland pushed forward, as best they could for an equaliser, but it was Germany in the dying seconds of injury time who found the net - Havertz putting through a defence splitting ball for Gnabry, who beat the offside trap and as Peacock Farrell hesitated, he shot across goal and into the corner.

Northern Ireland gave everything they had, but must now regroup with a daunting visit to Rotterdam to face the impressive Dutch in just a month's time.

Three games to go and while this was a setback, the men in green are still in the hunt for qualification.

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