Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 31 August 2014

Steven Beacom: South Africa looking a world away

That’s that then. By nature I’m a positive person but unless a miracle happens or we actually manage to beat a decent team away from home, Northern Ireland won’t be going to South Africa in 2010.

World Cup hopes and dreams? Gone in less than 60 Slovenian seconds.

The most frustrating thing is that before these World Cup qualifiers began, you really had to fancy Northern Ireland’s chances.

Remember we were entering this campaign on a high after a monumental European Championship series in which we went close to making the finals.

And when the draw was made, we could not have asked for anything more.

No Italy, no Holland, no Germany and no nightmare trips to the likes of Ukraine or Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Sure, England or Spain would have been great because we are guaranteed three points against them - David Healy would see to that - but the fans were licking their lips at the prospect of taking on and beating San Marino, Slovenia, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic.

Not exactly working out, is it?

So far Nigel Worthington’s side have taken a paltry one point from nine.

Yes, our boys will beat San Marino in the next two games - I’d like to think so anyway - and have seven points on the board at the halfway stage.

But five games in, a minimum requirement would have been 11 points especially with the toughest matches coming in the second half of the campaign.

Even beating San Marino back to back will leave us four points behind that target.

It could and should have been different.

In the opening match in Slovakia, Northern Ireland blew a fantastic chance to win. The 4-5-1 formation wasn’t right and the defending on two crucial occasions was all wrong.

True, we battled back from that to produce an encouraging display and draw 0-0 at Windsor Park with group favourites, the Czech Republic.

And for 84 minutes on Saturday night in Maribor, Worthington’s team built on that on with a solid, if unspectacular performance.

Defensively Jonny Evans and Aaron Hughes were in complete control at the back and with Chris Baird providing a selfless role as a holding midfielder for the third game running there appeared little danger from the Slovenians.

In contrast Kyle Lafferty was a constant threat at the other end.

On occasions he ran the home defence ragged in a highly impressive display.

Had he shown just a little more composure after brilliantly bursting clear, he would have had the goal his excellent performance deserved.

And Northern Ireland would have enjoyed a rare away win in a competitive international.

Instead the Slovenia goalkeeper saved and half an hour later the visiting players were trudging off the pitch in despair.

The reason for that was more defensive frailty.

George McCartney failed to do enough to stop an inviting cross from the right flank and Milivoje Novakovic stole in at the back post unmarked between Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley to score.

It was a cruel blow but one that ought to have been avoided.

We had been here before in Bratislava in the previous month.

The lessons from that were when in control of a game make it count and don’t make defensive errors.

Not heeded.

Reeling from that Novakovic strike, Northern Ireland conceded another seconds later when Evans, superb until then, misjudged a long clearance allowing Zlatan Ljubijankic to run through and score.

Game well and truly over.

And World Cup hopes fading faster than Danni Minogue on X Factor.

Could Worthington have done anything about it? Yes and no.

He picked the right team and used the system best suited to Northern Ireland, unlike against Slovakia, so no complaints there but with a victory required he could have been more positive with his substitution on Saturday when replacing Grant McCann, who had been doing a steady job.

Needing a win, bringing on Martin Paterson, rather than the more defensive minded Ryan McGivern, would have sent out a signal that we could win this match.

And it may have provided Healy with more service.

He is still our main man but even David can’t do anything without the ball!

Our fans now have high expectations and because of that Worthington is starting to take some heat.

Something is missing from the side and Nigel needs to find it — quickly.

Anything other than a comfortable victory over San Marino and he really will be under pressure.

As for Saturday, it was another night that promised much but yet again delivered nothing.

The World Cup may be in 2010, but South Africa seems light years away now.

Hope for a miracle and 18 points from our last seven games.

Otherwise vote for Eoghan in X-Factor or Christine in Strictly Come Dancing.

That way, at least someone from Northern Ireland will reach the finals.

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