Germany recovered from Northern Ireland taking a shock early lead to win 6-1 in Frankfurt and finish top of Euro 2020 qualifying Group C.
Serge Gnabry scored a hat-trick, Leon Goretzka got two and Julian Brandt was on target after Michael Smith had opened the scoring with a super strike.
The match was a dead rubber with the hosts having already qualified for next summer’s finals before kick-off.
Third-placed NI also knew they were heading for the play-offs in March.
With Wales beating Hungary 2-0 to qualify for the finals, it means Michael O’Neill’s men will be away to Bosnia-Herzegovina in their first play-off match.
Northern Ireland, who lost twice to Bosnia in the Nations League, would face the Republic of Ireland or Slovakia in the play-off final.
Manager O’Neill, who took over as Stoke City manager 10 days ago, has agreed to remain in charge of the international side for the play-off games.
Dream start but under-strength NI can’t hold on for long
Northern Ireland are the only team to have beaten Germany twice during what is now 200 World Cup and Euro qualification matches that they have played.
Smith’s early wonder goal will have had the ever-vocal members of the travelling Green and White Army dreaming of that becoming a hugely unlikely hat-trick, to add to the home and away wins that Billy Bingham’s side secured during the Euro 1984 qualifying campaign.
For Hearts full-back Smith, who was making his seventh international appearance after being left out of the side that drew with the Netherlands at Windsor Park on Saturday, the seventh-minute strike could prove to be the stand-out moment of his career.
A George Saville cross was headed clear by Toni Kroos and, when it fell to the 32-year-old defender, he unleashed an outstanding right-foot shot from 25 yards which flew past Barcelona keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen and into the bottom corner.
The lead only lasted 12 minutes as the Northern Ireland back four, which was missing the hugely influential centre-half Jonny Evans through illness as well as Stuart Dallas and Jamal Lewis through injury, were unable to withstand the inevitable waves of pressure from the talented hosts.
It was the 43rd minute before Germany took the lead but, after they added a third just two minutes after the break, Joachim Löw’s men became dominant in the second half as the visitors tired.
Clinical Gnabry comes back to haunt NI again
Bayern Munich forward Gnabry scored the important second goal in Belfast in September, when the 2014 World Cup winners took charge of the second half to beat NI 2-0 after O’Neill’s men had been on top before the break.
The former Arsenal and West Brom man was on form again in the Commerzbank Arena, with his clever movement and artistry around the penalty box continually proving too elusive for NI’s makeshift central defensive partnership of Craig Cathcart, winning his 50th cap, and Sunderland’s Tom Flanagan, who was making his first competitive start.
For his first goal on 19 minutes, the 24-year-old peeled off the back four and fired home a fine half-volley on the turn, and displayed more intelligent movement and a clinical strike for his second in the 47th minute, after Goretzka had given Germany the lead two minutes before the interval.
Gnabry’s third came on the hour as he held off Flanagan to latch on to a Lukas Klostermann pass and beat visiting keeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell with a precise finish.
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Goretzka’s low drive navigated a path through Northern Ireland legs for his second goal 17 minutes from time and Gnabry had gone off to the reception he deserved before Klostermann added a sixth German goal in stoppage time.
Heavy defeat not in keeping with O’Neill reign
Methodical preparation is one of former Shamrock Rovers boss O’Neill’s major strengths as an international manager, and it has ensured his side have very rarely lost heavily in competitive games.
Tuesday night’s chastening defeat in Frankfurt was the first time Northern Ireland had conceded six or more goals in a qualifying game in exactly 70 years, and it once again highlighted how important the few Premier League players that O’Neill has to call on are to the squad.
Evans, in particular, was a major loss as his absence through illness robbed the side of a player who has consistently performed on the international stage and who is in outstanding form for second-placed Leicester City.
O’Neill and his players will take comfort from the fact that, as heavy as the defeat was, it had no bearing on their progression to the play-offs, and he had said during the build-up that experience for his young players was high on the agenda of what he wanted to get out of the game.
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