Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

Defeat leaves Northern Ireland fighting for fourth place

Martin Patterson screams in disbelief at another wasted chance  during Tuesday's 2014 World Cup qualifier match between Northern Ireland and Israel at Windsor Park, Belfast
Martin Patterson screams in disbelief at another wasted chance during Tuesday's 2014 World Cup qualifier match between Northern Ireland and Israel at Windsor Park, Belfast
Northern Ireland- 26th March 2013 Mandatory Credit - Photo-Jonathan Porter/Presseye.  Northern Ireland Vs Israel World Cup Qualifier at Windsor Park in Belfast.   Northern Ireland fans pictured during the match.
Northern Ireland v Israel World Cup qualifier at Windsor Park in Belfast. Northern Ireland fans pictured during the match.
Eden Ben Basat, right, scored late on as Israel beat Northern Ireland

Another dismal night at Windsor Park. Is there no end to this misery? On the evidence of last night sadly not. It is so depressing.

Northern Ireland have now gone THIRTEEN matches without a victory – the last one was against the mighty Faroe Islands in 2011 – and Michael O'Neill still hasn't won as manager after NINE games in charge.

In that time we have witnessed some desperately disappointing evenings, but I reckon this crushing 2-0 defeat was the most dispiriting yet.

The final whistle told the tale. There were just a few boos. But mostly there was silence. The vast majority of the 10,400 fans inside the stadium – far from a full house – had left by then, resigned to their fate, their hopes of a long awaited and much craved success having faded quicker than the snow.

Even though Northern Ireland should have beaten both Luxembourg and Azerbaijan at home earlier in the World Cup qualifying campaign, at least they didn't lose those matches, drawing both 1-1.

There was nothing this time. A big fat zilch. No goals and no points against an Israel side that, frankly, were there for the taking. There have been occasions under O'Neill that the team has deserved more than they ended up with. For me this was not one of them.

Sure, Northern Ireland had plenty of possession and for large parts of the match they were the dominant force, but they lacked any meaningful inspiration all over the pitch.

In attack, O'Neill's side created few clear cut chances against a team who have been weak at the back in this group.

Keeper Dudu Aouate made one stunning save to deny Steve Davis in the first half, but apart from that wasn't tested.

We have got to do better than that. Much better.

As for Northern Ireland's defence, when they were put under pressure in the latter stages they wilted with substitute Lior Refaelov and Eden Ben Basat producing super finishes inside the box, though they should never have had the opportunity to find the net in the first place.

Aaron Hughes was out of position for the first and Jonny Evans allowed Itay Shechter to waltz past him for the second. It was rank bad defending from both. They are top quality Premier League footballers, for goodness sake. No wonder O'Neill looked shell-shocked.

This was supposed to be the match when his winless run as boss would end.

He had enjoyed working with the players all week and was feeling positive ahead of kick-off. The postponement of the Russian game meant that Northern Ireland would be a lot fresher than Israel, who had fought out a 3-3 draw at home to Portugal on Friday.

And remember they had been 3-1 up only to lose late goals, so they arrived in Belfast deflated. I repeat, they were there for the taking.

But Northern Ireland were not up to the job. The majority of our players deliver week in week out for their clubs, but are failing to produce quality on a consistent basis for their country.

I've been saying for ages now that when that green shirt goes on, they seem to have some sort of mental block about getting across the line. They have to get over that and it is up to the manager to find solutions.

I do have some sympathy for O'Neill, who took last night's defeat hard, though once again he did not react quickly enough to the situation with his substitutions, bringing on Josh Magennis, Paddy McCourt and David Healy far too late.

At 0-0 with an hour gone the game was drifting. O'Neill allowed it to. Quicker changes would have lifted his players and the fans. We are now half way through this campaign and have only amassed three points from five games.

Finishing first or second in the group was always going to be mission impossible, but being competitive and giving third spot a real go was the target. We are now in a battle to stay in fourth with Azerbaijan and Luxembourg. Right now that about sums us up.

O'Neill had stated that he'd love his team to deliver a big result and performance to cheer up the weather-beaten people of our wee country.

This result has made us feel even worse.

Sorry to say, but it really is hard to see where that next win is coming from.

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