Northern Ireland’s first competitive home defeat since 2013 was dealt by a “breathtaking” Germany side Michael O’Neill believes could be even better than the one that won the World Cup.
Joachim Low’s team ensured they will be in Russia next summer to defend their crown by defeating the Northern Irish 3-1 on Thursday in Belfast, where the hosts last lost a qualifier to Portugal in September 2013.
It was the Cristiano Ronaldo show that night, yet this German side is far from a one-man band as the excellent Sebastian Rudy, Sandro Wagner and Joshua Kimmich all registered brilliant strikes between the second and 86th minutes.
O’Neill was left marvelling at Die Mannschaft’s evolution and he believes that whoever lies in wait for them next month in a possible play-off will not measure up to the planet’s finest side.
“I’m not sure if there’s a system you can come up with that can contain Germany,” O’Neill claimed.
“The quality of their play at times is breathtaking, in terms of how they move the ball and the movement of their players.
“We had two League One players and Championship players, they don’t play that style, players of that calibre. It’s a huge education for our players and it will acquit us well. One thing I’ll say about playing Germany, whoever you play after seems a lot easier!
“If you look at the starting line-up, their oldest players are 28, 29, it gives you an indication of what’s coming in.
“I would imagine in Russia Germany are going to have a fantastic squad and possibly even a stronger squad than four years ago. It just seems there’s a never-ending conveyor belt of talent coming through. They’ll be a formidable team to beat in Russia.”
Only an unlikely Northern Irish victory would have assured them of a play-off berth on Thursday – and they never looked like being the first side to ever beat Die Mannschaft in an away World Cup qualifier.
Attention now turns to Sunday’s clash with Norway in Oslo, by which time their play-off place will be confirmed only if Bosnia and Herzegovina do not beat Belgium and Greece do not beat Cyprus on Saturday.
Even with six players one booking from a suspension, O’Neill will leave nothing to chance given the play-off draw is also seeded.
“I don’t have four players from Bayern Munich on my bench, it’s not that easy for me to rotate my squad,” he noted.
“We want to go out and try and get three points and try and make sure we’re not beaten. We can’t allow ourselves to field an inexperienced team and be beaten and (maybe) suddenly lose out on (the play-offs) on goal difference. It is very important.”
Ronaldo’s Portugal or Italy could lie in wait in those play-offs, yet having faced Northern Ireland three times over the past 16 months, Low is confident O’Neill’s side have the potential to beat such European heavyweights in a two-legged tie.
“Northern Ireland have a population of just under 2,000,000 and they were absolutely competitive in our group,” Low noted.
“There has been hardly any gap (in the group) between them and us.
“Of course it will be tremendously difficult to beat a team like Portugal or Italy over two games but they can do it.”