Northern Ireland have advanced to the last 16 at Euro 2016, despite losing 1-0 to world champions Germany in Paris earlier on Tuesday night.
Turkey’s 2-0 win over the Czech Republic ensured Michael O’Neill’s men are guaranteed one of the four spots afforded to the best third-placed teams by virtue of boasting a better goal difference than both the Turks and Albania, and they will face either France in Lyon or Wales in Paris at the weekend.
They were unable to book the ticket themselves prior to the Turkey game as Mario Gomez’s first-half finish earned Germany top spot in Group C, with Poland runners-up, though a string of saves from Michael McGovern proved crucial as Northern Ireland finished with a goal difference of zero, good enough to see them qualify in their first major tournament in 30 years.
Three hours after full-time in Paris, O’Neill’s team were in a state of limbo, not knowing if they would progress, if it would be confirmed on Tuesday night as they made their way back to Lyon, or following the fixtures on Wednesday.
The fact they were still in with a chance after the loss owed 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.
The prospect of a potentially historic night for Northern Ireland had brought four-time major winning golfer Rory McIlroy, one of their most famous sporting sons, to the French capital, though he was soon craning his neck in one direction as the Germans took control.
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 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 against 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 Germany colours, 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 McGovern’s heroics may have dispirited the reigning World Cup holders as their dominance decreased.
And, even when they did find the target, McGovern’s form continued as he scooped Gomez’s header away using his fingertips, with the goalkeeper’s night to remember effectively sealing Northern Ireland’s progress as one of the best third-placed teams.