Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill has admitted his worst fears were realised when his side suffered a 6-1 thrashing at the hands of Germany, despite grabbing an early goal.
Northern Ireland’s final Euro 2020 qualifying Group C fixture on Tuesday night saw the short-handed side take a shock seventh-minute lead when Michael Smith scored his first international goal.
But with Jonny Evans out through illness and Jamal Lewis sidelined by a knee problem, O’Neill’s side were missing vital Premier League experience at the back and found themselves overrun.
Serge Gnabry netted a hat-trick as Germany ran riot.
“It was a tough night,” O’Neill said, of his team’s worst defeat since a 6-0 friendly loss to the Netherlands in his second game in charge back in 2012.
“When you come into a game like this, when you’re missing players, at the back of your mind you fear this may happen and unfortunately it did.”
We couldn’t have got off to a better start …
The gulf in class was apparent in every department, but most obviously in Gnabry who moved on to 13 goals in as many international games.
“Gnabry was unplayable,” O’Neill said.
“Fantastic movement, fantastic finishing. For us, a double-header against the Netherlands and Germany without a full-strength squad, we don’t have the depth to be able to deal with it.”
The win confirmed Germany as Group C winners and it seems the young side Joachim Low is moulding can look forward to next summer’s finals with some optimism.
“What I liked a lot was that, after being 1-0 down with the very first shot at goal, we were immediately playing up front and playing offensive football,” Low said.
“And at no point did anybody really feel we were going to lose this.”
Northern Ireland knew before kick-off they were heading to the play-offs, and knew by full-time their opponents would be Bosnia and Herzegovina away from home - thanks to Wales’ victory over Hungary.
O’Neill’s men lost home and away to Bosnia in the Nations League, but were unfortunate to do so - picked off on the counter-attack in Belfast and hitting the post three times in a 2-0 loss in Sarajevo.
Much has changed for Northern Ireland since and O’Neill, who plans to remain in charge until March alongside his new role as Stoke boss, believes they can approach the trip with a degree of confidence as long as they have their key players available.
“The fact we won’t play Germany is the first thing,” he said.
“We played Bosnia in the Nations League and we should have beaten them at home and we were unfortunate to lose in Sarajevo, so the experience of being there will help us.”