Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 25 November 2014

Same old shot-shy story from Northern Ireland

Malta 0 Northern Ireland 0
Malta 0 Northern Ireland 0

Another dismal result for Northern Ireland. Eight games in and Michael O'Neill is still searching for that first victory as an international manager.

We all hoped and let's face it, given the players available, thought a trip to Malta would see him break his duck.

But no, same old story. 0-0 against one of the worst teams in Europe.

Under O'Neill Northern Ireland have now had five draws and three defeats.

In truth there's been little to cheer bar a fabulous draw in a World Cup qualifier against the might of Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal last October.

That shock 1-1 result was preceded by the same scoreline at home to little Luxembourg and was followed up by the same outcome against a seriously depleted Azerbaijan outfit at Windsor Park.

Northern Ireland should have beaten Luxembourg and Azerbaijan with something to spare.

The same goes for Malta in Valletta last night.

Each time they failed.

O'Neill was obviously using the match with the Maltese to prepare for next month's World Cup qualifier in Belfast against Group F table toppers Russia, hence he started with a pretty defensive 4-5-1 formation.

Fair enough – I can understand that he wanted to put his plan for Russia into practice so that the team knew what was required in advance.

Right now though the Northern Ireland's players need a huge injection of confidence more than anything else and a victory over Malta would have helped them gain some self belief ahead of Fabio Capello's side arriving in March.

Over the past few years results have been so poor and wins so difficult to come by, you take them when you can get them to lift the mood and morale of the squad.

Malta offered up a glorious opportunity. It was squandered. Remember what breeds confidence in sport more than anything else?

WINNING, that's what! So, why then did O'Neill not show just a little bit more adventure?

After watching his team set up the way he wants against Russia for 45 minutes in Malta, that should have been enough.

From then on, his thought process ought to have been about going for the win that the players need and the supporters crave.

For a 4,000 mile round trip and a lot of money spent, the travelling Green and White Army deserved much more than they got.

Too often in his reign, O'Neill has not made positive substitutions quickly enough. Paddy McCourt, capable of creating something out of nothing, only played for 18 minutes last night. Billy McKay, scoring goals for fun in the SPL with Inverness Caley Thistle, came on with 27 minutes to go. Both deserved 45.

Northern Ireland's record in friendlies in recent years has been abysmal. They haven't won in 17 games when points have not been on the line and it's now 1019 minutes without a goal in a friendly on the road, but in lots of those matches managers have been forced to field reserve sides due to so many high profile absentees.

Last night O'Neill had SIX highly regarded Premier League players starting against a bunch of part-timers. No excuses in terms of his team then.

This was a Northern Ireland side that, after a winless 2012, should have opened up 2013 with a successful result.

What all this does of course is up the ante for the Russian game in March, with Israel at Windsor four days later.

O'Neill is not in any danger of losing his job yet, but with eight games and counting without victory, the temperature is starting to rise on the boss.

He could have been made things a lot easier on himself with a more attacking approach in Malta that surely would have yielded a victory.

Northern Ireland, on three points, are in fourth place out of six teams in their World Cup qualifying table. O'Neill has guaranteed that the team would, at worst, stay there. Quite a declaration given current form.

Words must be matched by deeds. The manager needs a big performance against Russia next month.

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