Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

Steven Beacom: Northern Ireland must be more clinical in front of goal

Chris Baird directs a header wide of the post - one of many chances Northern Ireland squandered on Wednesday night

By the time Northern Ireland next play — a friendly in February — they will have gone 18 months without a victory. Far too long.

We’ve got to believe Northern Ireland are better than that.

Northern Ireland are also better than 1-1 draws at home to Azerbaijan and Luxembourg.

And Northern Ireland are better than a run of 11 matches without a win — seven of which have come under the latest man in the hotseat, Michael O'Neill.

The manager has quite rightly pointed out that the team, during his time, have had difficult fixtures travelling to Holland, Russia and Portugal.

But we've also had two of the easiest fixtures you can encounter in international football. And not once have we celebrated victory.

We showed in Portugal last month in another 1-1 draw how good we can be without the ball. But with it in front of goal against Azerbaijan on Wednesday we failed again and again.

Some have suggested that it was a good performance against Berti Vogts' injury ravaged side with our team creating numerous openings.

There is no doubt chances aplenty were carved out. Surely, though, putting the ball in the back of the net is a major element in any performance on a football pitch.

We didn't do that until the 96th minute against what was, along with Luxembourg, one of the worst teams to come to Windsor Park in recent years.

It wasn't as if the young Azerbaijan goalkeeper had one of those extraordinary nights when he stopped everything that we had to throw at him.

He hardly had to stop anything at all, because the finishing was so poor.

With their feet, until David Healy produced a clever injury time free-kick to earn a point, Northern Ireland players failed to open the door when opportunity knocked.

With their heads, the on target ratio was even worse.

Northern Ireland had what I would call five clear cut chances in the air, all of which should have been taken. Kyle Lafferty, Chris Baird, Craig Cathcart and youngster Daniel Lafferty were all guilty of not just missing the net, but missing the target altogether as they nodded wide or over the bar.

Talk about not using our heads wisely. That must change. The lack of composure in front of goal for the second home game running was frightening. We should have beaten Luxembourg in September and done the same to Azerbaijan.

Anyone who thinks differently should note that most of the Luxembourg players are part-time and most of the Azerbaijan players play in a division which is the equivalent to the League of Ireland.

Most of our team play in top leagues around Europe.

There was much talk in the Northern Ireland dressing room about the appalling time wasting of the Azerbaijan players on Wednesday night, but six stoppage time minutes were added allowing us to equalise.

O'Neill said Vogts apologised to him for the behaviour of the visiting players. Maybe Michael should have said sorry to the fans for another dismal result on home turf.

O'Neill has gone seven games without a win now, but while there are certain issues he should address like making quicker substitutions and instructing players to stop picking up needless bookings — Kyle Lafferty (pictured) and Chris Baird are out of the Russian game because of just that — he's still very much on a learning curve in international management.

On the upside he is attempting to play attractive football, has blooded some promising youngsters, recalled the excellent Roy Carroll, got that fabulous result in Portugal and is quite rightly under no pressure yet from the IFA.

Although annoying that we are out of contention for a World Cup place just four games in, we'll judge O'Neill at the end of the campaign.

In reflective mood on Wednesday night O'Neill admitted that failing to beat Luxembourg and Azerbaijan wasn't good enough, that he wouldn't have done anything different in his regime so far, that we won't finish below fourth in Group F and that victories will come along soon.

He’s a shrewd enough character to know that results will have to improve next year.

Here’s to 2013 bringing Northern Ireland much more joy than 2012.

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