Belfast Telegraph

We can shock the world and take historic German scalp, says McAuley

N Ireland v Germany, World Cup Qualifier Group C: Windsor Park, Thursday, 7.45 pm

By Graham Luney

The big man is back in town and Northern Ireland certainly need him. Gareth McAuley's return to the squad for the concluding double-header in World Cup qualifying Group C is a huge relief to boss Michael O'Neill and the timing is crucial after Aaron Hughes withdrew with a calf injury.

The toughest challenge in international football awaits tomorrow night, and even under the Windsor Park lights and inspired by a loud and proud Green and White Army, the hosts are not expected to slam the brakes on the Germany bandwagon.

The distinguished guests have never lost a World Cup qualifier on their travels, a run that spans 46 games from March 1934. In fact, the Germans have only ever lost two matches in World Cup qualifying and both came on home turf, a 1-0 loss to Portugal in Stuttgart 1985 and a 5-1 defeat to England in Munich back in 2001.

McAuley, who made his international debut in a 4-1 friendly loss to Germany in 2005, has matured into one of the team's inspirational leaders, a man for the big occasion, and if Northern Ireland are to rewrite the history books tomorrow, 'Big G' will need to play a huge part in one of the greatest defensive showings this country has ever produced.

Germany have netted 35 goals and only conceded two in their eight qualifiers, while 134 for, 36 against is their highly impressive goal difference in World Cup qualifying away games.

Only the brilliance of goalkeeper Michael McGovern prevented Northern Ireland from suffering a bigger hammering in their 1-0 loss during the Euro 2016 tournament, while in the October qualifier first-half goals by Julian Draxler and Sami Khedira earned the home side a 2-0 win.

So what will it take to sink the Germans at Windsor?

"We will need a performance and a bit of a hybrid of the two previous games. In Hanover I thought we were better than at the Euros," said McAuley.

"At the Euros we had a bit of luck and (Michael) McGovern was unbelievable on the day and saved us on numerous occasions.

"A performance in between the two would be nice and hopefully we get the result.

"It's going to be tough. We know we'll have to play a counter-attacking style of football against them, but the game in Hanover we had more chances going forward than you would think, and a little bit more care in what we were doing might have caused them a few more problems.

"We've got that belief we can actually hurt them and it's different in Belfast, a tight ground with the crowd behind us. We have nothing to lose.

"They're talking about winning 10 out of 10 and it's up to us to try and stop that. That underdog tag we've had forever suits us.

"Playing against Germany is a challenge to relish, these guys are on another level. (Thomas) Muller's movement is fantastic but you could name 10 players who are equally as good and if they're injured they could put 10 more players in - they've got that much depth.

"That's what you're up against. How do you improve if you don't challenge yourself against these players?

"Obviously you have the satisfaction if you do stop them or curtail them, it does make you feel good after when you think about it."

In previous years if Northern Ireland had conquered Germany there would be dancing on the streets - and that's just the players - but McAuley says there's a different mentality in the squad now.

"What would a win over Germany mean to me? Three points," he joked.

"No, it would be incredible. I'll be looking straight to the Norway game and thinking about getting a result there and recovering to do that.

"I think that's a big thing over the last few years, if we got a result like that we'd have probably hit the town and celebrated and thought happy days!

"But now there's complete different mentality within the group, we'd be looking straight into the Norway game.

"With the results and everything that comes with it, everyone wants to be successful and wants the good times to continue.

"As for reaching World Cup finals, it's not what it would mean to me, it's the group, we've seen what it meant to the country when we were at the Euros, it would be incredible to go through that again.

"It's a different stage but there's so much work to go before that and I'm never one to get too far ahead of myself.

"My focus and the focus as a group is to make sure we get a point out of these two games to make sure we don't miss out on the chance through these play-off games.

"A lot of the lads have grown up playing with each other from 10 or younger maybe. Certainly they puff their chest out and grow in stature.

"Michael's (O'Neill) gradually given them belief that they are competing at international level and the results back that up.

"You come away here and it might be different in terms of mentality.

"They're international footballers and are competing. If you get the right breaks you can play higher.

"There's good players playing further down the leagues who maybe haven't had the breaks to play at a higher level."

O'Neill, meanwhile, has reiterated his concerns over leaving the international scene for a club job.

"The direction a club goes in now, I'm not sure the manager has an influence," he said. "I look at the Premier League and you are not really managing a club, you are just there to try to get results.

"Sir Alex Ferguson has gone and Arsene Wenger is still there, but the rest are pretty much there to keep teams in the Premier League or aspire to do something at the top end of the league.

"That's purely their focus, they don't have time or focus to look at the direction of the club."

Next fixtures:

October 5: N Ireland v Germany; Azerbaijan v Czech Republic; San Marino v Norway

Oct 8 - Norway v N Ireland; Germany v Azerbaijan; Czech Republic v San Marino

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