Belfast Telegraph

Davis absence cost us a win bonus, says boss O'Neill

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill admitted his side missed the influence of skipper Steven Davis during last night's 2-0 defeat against Romania.

It was the first loss in the Euro 2016 qualifiers and O'Neill felt it was no coincidence that it was also the first time that the Southampton star had not played in the campaign.

Davis sustained a hamstring injury playing for his club last weekend and without him there was a lack of control in midfield and an inability to keep possession as Romania piled on the pressure and eventually scored two late goals.

"There's no doubt Steven being out weakens us," said O'Neill post match in Budapest.

"In these types of games he gives you the ability to stay on the ball, to play in tight areas and difficult circumstances. We probably didn't do those things as well without him.

"We also missed the other players unavailable to us, Shane Ferguson, Jamie Ward, Jonny Evans...these are all players who would come in and make us stronger."

Despite the loss, O'Neill was pleased with the work-rate of his team and remained in positive mood with Northern Ireland having collected nine points from their opening four games, which has left them going into a break until March in second place, one point behind new leaders Romania.

Given that the top two sides qualify for the finals and even third guarantees a play-off, there is much to build on.

"Nine points from four games having gone away to Budapest, Athens and Bucharest is great and I'm proud of the effort the players have given," said O'Neill.

"I told the lads not to be too disappointed about this result, but they genuinely are because at 70 minutes you believe there's a point there for you, maybe more if you can exploit your opportunities.

"I said to them not to be too despondent because we have so much to play for in the second half of the campaign.

"We have four home games to look forward to and our most difficult away games are behind us.

"We play Finland next in Belfast and that is an opportunity to go eight points clear of them which is a huge amount after five games.

"Hungary have recovered from us beating them first up, but for the Faroes to defeat Greece was a shock outcome, so on the whole results have been positive for us.

"I'm sure we will react well to this and recover. Our focus now is to win the next two home games. We have an opportunity to cement our place in the top three."

On last night's match, O'Neill added: "We can play better no doubt about that, but we have to give credit to our opponents who were excellent.

"As I said before this was a bonus game for us because Romania are the strongest team in the group.

"We came within 15 minutes of getting away with a point, but ultimately have to say the better team won the game.

"We knew we would have to defend for long periods of the game and knew our best opportunities would be counter attacks, just like in Athens against Greece last month.

"We had one or two chances to counter, but we didn't really take them. We did give ourselves a chance of getting a foothold and at 70 minutes we felt we could get away with a draw.

"Ultimately Romania scored a great first goal in terms of quality of strike and it was just a bit too much for us in the end."

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