It has been a difficult week for Northern Ireland, with their Euro 2020 hopes taken away with defeat to Slovakia. The Green and White Army also suffered a defeat away to Austria and conceded a late equalizer at home to Romania in the UEFA Nations League.
Manager Ian Baraclough has been thrown into what was a series of difficult matches over the past two international breaks, with the play-off win over Bosnia and Herzegovina being the highlight of his tenure so far.
The UEFA Nations League is still technically competitive matches, and play-off places for the World Cup and the European Championships are still up for grabs. Northern Ireland however do tend to use these matches as a way to blood young players into the setup.
We seen under Michael O’Neill the likes of Jamal Lewis and Bailey Peacock-Farrell gained some valuable game time, with both Premier League players now regular first-team players for Northern Ireland.
The less I speak of the play-off final the better for the sake of the Green and White Army. It was a solid performance that was undone at the end by a mistake at the back. There were many positives from the performance, Northern Ireland were inches away from winning the game after Lafferty smashed the post.
Kucka got the opener for Slovakia after 17 minutes when George Saville missed timed his header back to Jonny Evans and Kucka beat him for pace. With only minutes to go Northern Ireland managed to get the ball into the back of the Slovakian net thanks to Skriniar, who knocked the ball past his own keeper to send the 1060 Northern Ireland fans in the stadium into dreamland.
With ten minutes to go in extra-time, Duris broke Northern Ireland fans’ hearts, with exhaustion kicking in for all players, even captain Steven Davis who could hardly walk for the final ten minutes of the match.
It is disappointing that Northern Ireland will not be able to go to the Euros again, but the attention of the nation now turns to the World Cup and what could be the final run out for the Kings of Leon squad.
Northern Ireland team vs Slovakia: Peacock-Farrell, Dallas, Cathcart, Evans, Lewis, McGinn, McNair, Davis, Saville, Washington, Magennis
Subs used: Flanagan, Boyce, Lafferty, Ferguson, Thompson, Whyte
For the Nations League, it was a disappointing trip away to Austria. It was a depleted squad that traveled to Vienna, yet it was a strong performance from the team.
For the first time under Baraclough, Northern Ireland took the lead of a game, only to let the lead slip in the final ten minutes when two Austrian goals found their way into the back of the Northern Ireland net.
There was a change in formation for the visitors, switching to a 5-3-2, something we have seen them play a few times in the Nations League so far. The only players that would be considered guaranteed starters for Northern Ireland that played from the first whistle was Dallas and McNair. Young star Daniel Ballard got some more game time and Ali McCann got his first run out for the Green and White Army, and they put in two very impressive performances.
Northern Ireland team vs Austria: McGovern, Ballard, McLaughlin, Flanagan, Dallas, McNair, Smith, McCann, Ferguson, Washington, Boyce.
Subs used: Lewis, Davis, Whyte, Cathcart, Magennis.
The final game of the international break for Northern Ireland was against Romania. They received news going into this game that UEFA had awarded Romania the win for their postponed match against Norway, which ultimately relegated Northern Ireland to League C before a ball was even kicked in their final group game.
This was probably the best performance for Northern Ireland under Baraclough so far. The mix of youth and experience helped create a new dynamic going forward, with young McCann being the star of the show in the midfield alongside right-back turned center-back turned defensive midfielder Michael Smith, basically a reincarnation of Chris Baird.
Stephen Craigan also gave McCann the highest praise he could of but saying that he “reminds me of a young Steven Davis”. This young player has a big future ahead of him. We also got to see our first competitive glimpse of Ethan Galbraith, much to the delight of the Northern Ireland fans.
It was another disappointing final ten minutes for Northern Ireland however after Liam Boyce found the goal to put them in front on 56 minutes. With nine minutes to play, Bicfalvi fired the ball past Peacock-Farrell to ensure survival for the Romanians, regardless of the result of a potential Norway appeal.
Northern Ireland team vs Romania: Peacock-Farrell, Cathcart, Ballard, Evans, Dallas, McNair, Smith, McCann, Kennedy, Magennis, Boyce.
Subs used: McLaughlin, Lewis, Galbraith, Washington.
That is it from Northern Ireland until March 2021, but the draw for the FIFA World Cup 2022 Qualifiers is soon approaching on December 7th. Northern Ireland will be in Pot 3 for it so will face two top teams that will make life difficult, but as always we dare to dream with Northern Ireland.