Northern Ireland’s last-16 chances at Euro 2016 are hanging in the balance following a 1-0 loss to the world champions Germany which may yet see them advance.
Mario Gomez’s first-half finish came amid a flurry of opportunities for the dominant Germans, who had 71 per cent possession, yet a herculean effort from soon-to-be free agent Michael McGovern ensured Michael O’Neill’s team finished in third with a goal difference of zero.
That is greater than Albania’s total and if they gain more points or boast a greater goal difference than just one of the other teams to finish third during the group stage then they will progress to the knockout stages.
The fact they are still in with a chance owes much to McGovern’s heroics as he denied Muller, Mesut Ozil and Mario Gotze in the first half before thwarting Gotze and Gomez again with even better saves after the break.
With Conor Washington cut adrift in attack, the Northern Irish midfield were unable to stop Toni Kroos and, in particular, Ozil pulling apart their defence.
McGovern’s one-on-one save from Thomas Muller was the first of a trio of stops in quick succession, the others coming from Ozil and Gotze, before Muller steered another attempt just past the post.
Still the attacks came and after Muller nodded Joshua Kimmich’s cross on to the post, it took just two more minutes before McGovern was finally beaten.
Ozil was again the architect as he released Muller, and though Aaron Hughes and McGovern shut off his route to goal, Gomez was on hand to finish via a Gareth McAuley deflection.
O’Neill had trusted the same XI that defeated Ukraine five days earlier, yet while they had created opportunities then, Jamie Ward’s shot straight at Manuel Neuer was their only first-half attempt, and they were fortunate to not be 2-0 down at the break as Muller again struck the woodwork.
For all the galaxy of stars in the German’s arsenal, the best player on the pitch continued to be Hamilton’s McGovern, who is out of contract at the end of this month and will not be short of offers having somehow denied Gotze’s half-volley by thrusting his right arm down early in the second period.
Gotze was substituted shortly after missing a sitter from close range before McGovern thwarted Sami Khedira – Gomez heading the rebound wide.
Kyle Lafferty came on in place of Washington prior to the hour mark and Steven Davis’ long carry forward and a couple of corner opportunities, which ultimately came to nothing, increased the decibel levels among the Green and White Army.
McGovern’s heroics may have dispirited the reigning World Cup holders as their dominance decreased, with a Muller header wide from Ozil’s delivery their only effort of note for some time.
And, even when they did find the target, McGovern’s form continued as he scooped Gomez’s header away with his fingertips after the goalscorer had reached the impressive Kimmich’s cross.
It finished 1-0 and having waited 30 years just to be at a major tournament, Northern Ireland’s fans will be content with a slightly longer wait to see if a last-16 berth can be sealed.