North dig in to prevent rout as Germans dazzle
N Ireland 1 Germany 3
Northern Ireland tasted defeat in a competitive match at Windsor Park for the first time in four years, but there was a real positive for manager Michael O'Neill as his players prevented Germany from turning the game into the rout it initially threatened to be.
There is no disgrace in losing to a side as gifted as this but a battering at the hands of the world champions would have been damaging to Northern Ireland's Fifa ranking.
With the team still hopeful of being seeded should they secure a play-off spot, averting that scenario was the one blessing for O'Neill going into their final qualifying game against Norway in Oslo on Sunday.
Germany were two goals in front after 21 minutes courtesy of Sebastian Rudy and Sandro Wagner and looked in danger of taking the home team apart.
However, Northern Ireland rallied after the interval and claimed a late consolation through their best performer, Josh Magennis, in stoppage time after Joshua Kimmich had capped a magnificent showing by scoring his team's third goal.
Bundesliga clubs may be struggling in Europe this season but at international level Germany are the world champions and No 1 ranked side for good reason.
No other team in qualifying had found a way past this Northern Ireland defence, but Joachim Low's men needed 80 seconds.
Lee Hodson, who had started in the 2-0 defeat in Hannover 12 months earlier, cleared a cross from Leon Goretzka only as far as Kimmich, who plucked the ball out of the air and then laid it off for Rudy, who thrashed a stunning shot from 25 yards into the top corner. It was some way to claim your first international goal.
There were multiple warnings before Germany plundered their second with another moment of individual brilliance, Sandro Wagner dumping Gareth McAuley on his back side with a slick turn before rifling a left-foot shot past Michael McGovern, having earlier been denied by a post from Kimmich's cross.
O'Neill will have been satisfied with how his team finished the half. But he also recognised something need to change after the interval and switched to a 4-5-1 formation.
Stuart Dallas replaced Hodson, in the hope of being able to put more pressure on Tony Kroos - so good that he makes passes even when he slips.
It helped, too, that Germany seemed happy to drop down a gear, but it still required McGovern at full stretch to tip aside a glancing header from Thomas Muller to stop the Germans taking a 3-0 lead.
But there was a better shape to Northern Ireland, who mobilised quicker in midfield, kept the ball better when they had it. The gulf in class, while still manifest, was a little less glaring.
The one surprise was that Kyle Lafferty, who was well off the pace, lasted as long as he did before Conor Washington was introduced.
The Queens Park Rangers striker offered far more urgency and Northern Ireland's endeavour was summed up 13 minutes from time when Magennis caught Hummels dawdling after picking up Chris Brunt's cross-field pass and bundled the Bayern Munich centre-half off the ball.
Magennis then had the composure to look up and thread the ball through to Washington, who sidestepped Boateng beautifully only to thrash his shot against the crossbar.
The embarrassment of riches at Low's disposal was epitomised by him bringing on City's Leroy Sane for Julian Draxler, but the noise level in Windsor remained raucous.
Millwall's George Saville was introduced for an international debut and he raced back to stop a pass getting to Sane in the box moments after the Manchester City man had scooped a clear opening over.
There would be a German third four minutes from time and, fittingly, it was Kimmich who claimed it when he steered a blistering volley past McGovern and into the net after Marvin Plattenhardt's cross was headed into the air by Jonny Evans.
Yet it would finish 3-1 as Brunt's corner was headed back towards goal by McAuley, where Magennis was waiting to direct in a consolation effort with virtually the final act. (© Daily Telegraph, London)