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Bruising Slovakia battle sets Northern Ireland up for France adventure

Slovakia 0-0 Northern Ireland

By Paul Ferguson

In the depths of the Antona Malatinskeho Stadium on Saturday, an hour after the final whistle, Northern Ireland talisman Kyle Lafferty lifted up his T-shirt and raised his knee to the air.

The numerous wounds on his body from the effects of a running battle with Liverpool hardman and Slovakia captain Martin Skrtel were clearly evident.

"All that from one challenge," exclaimed Lafferty. "It's sore, but I'm fine."

Defender Craig Cathcart was still walking slowly having taken a knee to the back, which forced him out of the game after 30 minutes and gave Northern Ireland great Aaron Hughes the opportunity to win his 100th cap.

Bumps and bruises would have covered every single Northern Ireland outfield player yesterday morning when they woke from a well earned rest.

Northern Ireland, in their final pre-Euro 2016 warm-up match, had gone to war with an extremely physical Slovakian side, who just one week earlier had beaten Germany 3-1, and come away with their pride, bodies and most pleasing for the players the unbeaten record intact, which now stretches to 12 games.

Michael O'Neill's men have arrived at their base camp in France in the best form of any of the 24 competing nations - an incredible fact considering in December they were last of all the teams in the betting behind Albania and Iceland.

Yet it is a measure of how far Northern Ireland have come in the last two years that none of the players were happy with the performance.

They could have easily lost their discipline under intense provocation and lack of protection from Romanian referee Marian Radu - indeed, just a few years ago Lafferty would no doubt have retaliated to the rough house treatment from Skrtel and his comrades.

But they kept cool and composed on a rather pleasant evening in Trnava and it was the Slovaks and their 17,000 fans who became frustrated.

Northern Ireland were forced to soak up a great deal of pressure, especially in the second-half, as former Rangers favourite Vladimir Weiss, Robert Mak and star man Marek Hamsik all attempted to penetrate the defence without success.

Goalkeeper Michael McGovern made a string of decent saves, most notably when in a one-on-one situation with Mak just before half-time, he made himself look big, narrowed all angles and the Slovakian striker was denied.

In many ways this game was the perfect preparation for an attack-minded Poland in Sunday's Euro 2016 opener in Nice. But Northern Ireland will want to control possession better and hurt the opposition with their explosive counter attack.

Boss O'Neill employed a 3-5-1-1 formation with Manchester United's Paddy McNair and Millwall's Shane Ferguson acting as the wing backs.

With Chris Baird in the holding midfielder slot and Jamie Ward playing just off Lafferty, this could well be the team that starts against the Poles.

O'Neill has a few big decisions to make. Leeds winger Stuart Dallas was excused from this game due to his wedding on Friday, and the boss must decide on him or Ferguson for that left wing back role. Dallas' form has been excellent recently and if it was just a winger role then he would get it every time. But Ferguson maybe offers more defensively and this will come into O'Neill's thinking.

Ferguson proved that he can handle the physical part of the game and will not be pushed over.

McNair is not a natural right back but could get the nod as a wing back ahead of Conor McLaughlin as O'Neill stressed last week that the Old Trafford youngster has an excellent chance of making the team. Baird, after a courageous performance, has the holding midfielder shirt in his grasp so McNair may move out to the right.

Northern Ireland expected a severe test from the side that had beaten Spain in qualification and had lost only twice in 19 games - make that 20 now.

Weiss, a former team-mate of Lafferty's at Ibrox, was Slovakia's main threat with his runs but his final ball was poor. Northern Ireland mostly restricted the Slovakians to half chances and efforts from the edge of the box. Gareth McAuley, exactly 11 years since he made his debut, made a goal saving challenge to poke the ball away from Hamsik on 31 minutes.

Jonny Evans tackled superbly and showed his tremendous fitness. Northern Ireland were caught out on 40 minutes for that one-on-one chance when Michal Duris played a delightful defence-splitting ball, but McGovern saved the day.

Northern Ireland did a have a few forays up field and maybe should have had a penalty after just a few minutes when a Lafferty shot inside the box looked to have hit a Slovakian arm.

On the stroke of half-time, keeper Matus Kozacik fumbled a Baird free-kick but skipper Steven Davis couldn't poke in the rebound.

Conor Washington nearly broke the deadlock just minutes after replacing Lafferty when he drilled low and hard and the keeper had to make a good save.

It was fitting on a night when Hughes won his 100th cap that Northern Ireland should kept a clean sheet.

And if they are to make a serious imprint in France, defence will be crucial.

Next stop Nice and the Poles.

SLOVAKIA: Kozacik, Pekarik, Skrtel, Durica, Svento, Hrosovsky, Kucka (Nemec, 84 mins), Hamsik, Mak (Stoch, 65 mins), Weiss, Duris (Duda, 65 mins).

Unused subs: Mucha, Gyomber, Gregus, Sestak, Novota, Skriniar, Salata, Pecovsky.

N IRELAND: McGovern, Baird, McAuley, Cathcart (Hughes, 30 mins), J Evans, Ferguson (Hodson, 86 mins), Davis, McNair (McLaughlin, 90 mins), Norwood (C Evans, 84 mins), Lafferty (Washington, 55 mins), Ward (Magennis, 46 mins).

Unused subs: Carroll, McGinn, Grigg, McCullough, Mannus.

Referee: Radu Petrescu (Romania)

Match rating: 6/10

Man of the match: Chris Baird

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