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As the Republic pore over permutations, things are a lot easier for Northern Ireland

Michael O’Neill’s side are pretty much assured of a play-off place and face Germany tomorrow night.

Image: Brian Lawless

WITH THE SEASON finale approaching fast on the horizon, the Republic of Ireland are still deeply immersed in a will-they, won’t-they storyline.

Meanwhile, for Northern Ireland things are a bit different.

Michael O’Neill’s side have taken 19 points from a possible 24 and the only blot on their copybook is a 2-0 defeat to Germany in Hannover last October.

They’ve won their last five fixtures ever since that setback and welcome the same opposition to Belfast on Thursday evening.

In one sense, it’s a little unfair on O’Neill’s side. Right now, they have a better record than a variety of teams that are currently topping other groups (France, Serbia, Croatia) but will – unless in the event of a sizeable miracle – have to rely on the play-offs as their route to a first World Cup since 1986.

They’re guaranteed to finish in the top-two but, hypothetically, can still win Group C with victories over Germany and Norway coupled with a German defeat to Azerbaijan in their final fixture.

Unlikely as that is, a draw tomorrow night will assure Northern Ireland of a play-off place. Second place, as the Republic of Ireland know only too well, does not automatically guarantee a play-off place because of the nine groups and eight spots available.

Remarkably, Germany have never lost an away World Cup qualifier but O’Neill feels his side can cause an upset.

“This is almost the bonus game for us. Can we take it? Can we raise the bar a little higher?” he said.

“The players believe they can. I believe they can.”

It’s the third time in 16 months the sides have met. At Euro 2016, a solitary Mario Gomez goal separated the sides while Julian Draxler and Sami Khedira were on the mark in a 2-0 win last year.

So, tightly-contested.

Gareth McAuley has echoed his manager’s sentiments.

“We’ve got that belief we can actually hurt them, and it’s different in Belfast, a tight ground with the crowd behind us,” the 37-year-old defender said.

“That underdog tag we’ve had forever suits us.”

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