JOSH MAGENNIS’ injury-time header almost took the roof off Windsor Park but it was only a consolation as Germany booked their place to defend their World Cup trophy.
Sebastian Rudy, Sandro Wagner and Joshua Kimmich put Die Mannschaft in complete control on a night when the best team on the planet dazzled and teased with ease.
But Michael O’Neill’s men produced a quality second half performance to give his opposite number Joachim Low a few things to think about and Magennis’ last-gasp header was what the sell-out crowd had been waiting for.
Inflicting Germany first ever World Cup qualifying defeat away from home was never on the cards after conceding a goal after only 78 seconds.
But the fact all seven players one booking away from missing the trip to Norway avoided the referee’s notebook was the biggest result of the night.
A point may well be needed in Oslo but this Northern Ireland side have already shown they are a better side than the Norwegians.
Expectations levels have gone through the roof but far from being burdened by it, O’Neill and his players take pleasure from the fact it is their almighty punching above their weight on a regular basis that creates it.
But having gone into this game having not conceded a goal for a little under NINE hours of football in the qualifying campaign, Michael McGovern was beaten after less than 90 SECONDS – and what a strike it was.
The ball was only half cleared when Bayern Munich midfielder let fly from more than 25 yards.
From the moment it left his boot, is was arrowed for the top corner and not even Germany nemesis McGovern could keep it out and the visitors were in front after 78 seconds.
It was a hell of a strike to open his international account and a huge reality check for the fans daring to dream about taking a major scalp.
And there was much more danger to follow, but not before Northern Ireland responded with an attack of their own and Gareth McAuley almost got onto the end of a Chris Brunt corner.
That tried and tested double act didn’t work on that occasion but the Germans were a cut above all over the pitch.
Five minutes weren’t even on the clock by the time Die Mannschaft ripped them open again.
This time it was full-back-cum-winger Joshua Kimmich who whipped the cross into the six-yard box for Sandro Wagner but McGovern threw himself to the right to pull off a stunning diving save from the Hoffenheim striker’s header.
He should have scored but that couldn’t take away from a simply stunning stop from the Norwich City man.
It was no real reflexion on Northern Ireland but the Germans were attacking at will and picking exactly the right time to pounce.
O’Neill’s men could see it coming but they were powerless to stop it.
Wagner was proving to be a real handful for both McAuley and Jonny Evans and he got on the end of yet another Kimmich cross but despite beating McGovern this time, the post came to Northern Ireland’s rescue.
But it was third time lucky for Wagner on 21 minutes and Germany were well worth their 2-0 lead.
The powerhouse front man spun McAuley on the edge of the penalty area and after a clever ball from skipper Thomas Muller, and wrapped his left foot around the ball, caressing it into the corner.
With less than 20 minutes gone Joachim Low’s men had scored twice, hit the woodwork and saw McGovern pull off a world class save.
But if O’Neill and his troops could take any heart it was a similar story in Hanover last October when Germany raced into a 2-0 lead before Northern Ireland stemmed the flow and got to grips with their opponent.
O’Neill tweaked the formation with less than a half hour on the clock and other than a Mats Hummels header over the bar, there was some respite at the back.
At the other end of the pitch Corry Evans, who took a more central role in the tactical change, got on the end of a Josh Magennis cross but Barcelona keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen charged off his line to block with his legs.
It was a great chance for the Blackburn Rovers man, but more importantly, it was a morale booster ahead of the interval.
Stuart Dallas replaced Hodson at the beginning of the second half as O’Neill tried something different against the best international side on the planet.
McGovern had to be alert again on 51 minutes however when Muller was given space 12 yards from goal to head towards the far corner but, just like he did on several occasions at the Euros, the Fermanagh man denied the Bayern Munich star with a diving save at full stretch.
It wasn’t until the gasps from the crowd when the save was replayed on the giant screen that the breathtaking quality of the stop was acknowledged.
Germany may have eased their foot off the pedal slightly but Northern Ireland were giving it much more of a go in the second half and substitute Conor Washington could – and probably should – have halved the deficit on 77 minutes.
The QPR hitman cut inside Jerome Boateng before rifling a shot off the top of the crossbar with Ter Stegen beaten all ends up.
Millwall’s George Svill was given his debut with 10 minutes to go and his first touch was a perfectly time slide to deny Geman sub Leroy Sane a tap-in.
But the Germans did strike again on 86 minutes when the sublime Kimmich volleyed past McGovern from close range.
By the time Magennis made it 3-1 the outcome was never in doubt and a the play-off place will have to wait.
But it’s still only matter of time and thankfully O’Neill still has his trump cards to play with.