O'Neill braced for a Germany onslaught
Joachim Low was talking yesterday about the "humbling" experience of German clubs in Europe so far this season and how a dismal record of one win and nine defeats from 12 Champions League and Europa League fixtures has served as something of a wake-up call for the Bundesliga.
"Hopefully it's just a momentary blip but it is alarming," the Germany coach reflected. "It's wrong to praise the Bundesliga to high heaven or say only the Bundesliga produces the best talent. That would be untrue so people who say this have been humbled by this experience in Europe."
Unfortunately for Northern Ireland, the crisis in German football does not extend to their rampant national team, which Bayern Munich defender Jerome Boateng has described as providing an "oasis of calm" amid the storm clouds engulfing his club and their domestic rivals.
Michael O'Neill's side have not lost a competitive fixture at Windsor Park for four years but that record is likely to face a severe examination in Belfast this evening against the world champions, who have never lost a World Cup qualifier away from home and lead Group C with eight wins from eight.
Northern Ireland are guaranteed second place, if not yet a play-off spot, but while this game represents a meeting of the sides with the two best defensive records in European qualifying, O'Neill is under no illusions about who will be doing the lion's share of the defending and has been tailoring his training sessions accordingly.
"They overload on you so much that we have ended up playing a lot of lopsided games - 10 versus eight, 10 versus six, and changing the shape of the pitch to try and create what the game will be like on the night," O'Neill said.
In fairness, Northern Ireland's players already have an idea of what they are in for, "mentally as much as physically", according to captain Steven Davis.
The scoreline may not have reflected it but they performed better in the 2-0 defeat in Hannover a year ago - the only time their net has been breached in qualifying - than they did in the 1-0 loss in Paris at Euro 2016 four months earlier, when only Michael McGovern's heroics in goal and Germany's wastefulness prevented a rout.
So is O'Neill excited and focused or apprehensive and nervous this time around? "All four really, I'm not sure in what order, it depends what time of the day you get me at," he joked.
Injuries to Manuel Neuer, Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira, Mario Gomez, Timo Werner and Jonas Hector are timely for Northern Ireland but O'Neill knows the challenge remains the same and offered a vivid snapshot of the task in hand.
"They make so many unselfish runs in behind that bit by bit you find yourself dropping deeper," O'Neill said. "Their striker will stay away and then you've got a decision to make about who steps in against him and that, in turn, creates space for them.
"Toni Kroos almost plays at left-back because their left-back is so high up the pitch but the more you try to pressure him, the more chance there is of leaving space behind."
Mats Hummels and Boateng are happy to play two v two at the back and when Boateng steps up into midfield they are even prepared to play one v two because Boateng will back himself to recover if something goes wrong."
O'Neill suggested the key to success lies in exploiting any German over-elaboration at the back and maximising those rare opportunities to counter-attack, something Low acknowledged before making clear his own respect for his opponent.
"Michael has earned great merit," Low said. "You only keep seven clean sheets in eight matches if you know what you're doing. Few teams in the world can switch so efficiently between man-marking and space-marking and it's really due to his coaching qualities.
"What we've seen, too, is that their players coach each other on the pitch and that also adds to their good performances."
Northern Ireland v Germany, live, Sky Sports, 7.45