Belfast Telegraph

Face it, Northern Ireland are at rock bottom

By Graham Luney

This shocking Northern Ireland performance was shaped by a fear of failure. The players were nervous and weighed down by the favourites tag, Michael O'Neill's side struggled to assert their authority.

Martin Paterson's stunning first half strike will live long in the memory but unfortunately so will the inept performance from the visitors in the Stade Josy Barthel.

After taking the lead in the 14th minute, a confident and slick international side would have swept aside the minnows who hadn't won a home World Cup qualifier in 43 years – until last night.

Gareth McAuley thought he had spared his side's blushes with a late equaliser but if one team deserved to emerge triumphant it was the home side who looked more dangerous throughout.

The sad reality is that Luxembourg wanted this result more than Northern Ireland.

Where was the hunger, desire or fight – the qualities the Green and White Army demand in full knowledge that we aren't the most skilful side in the world. When Northern Ireland went to Portugal last October they produced a sensational performance, full of spirit and determination.

In Luxembourg their performance was right at the other end of the scale.

Northern Ireland were stung at the end of the first half when the home side grabbed an equaliser but they deserved it. Keeper Roy Carroll, who has now conceded 36 goals in his 29 games for his country, was powerless when a shot from Aurelien Joachim found the net with the help of a deflection off Daniel Lafferty but it was a slice of luck Luxembourg earned.

Although Paterson's goal was a moment to cherish, for large parts of the game the visitors looked vulnerable.

Carroll was tested, his crossbar was rattled and all that Luxembourg needed was a little composure in the final third.

The visitors looked tense from the first whistle and they never settled into any rhythm despite scoring the 14th opener.

The away goal, though, was a real golden moment.

The impressive Shane Ferguson produced a stunning pass and Paterson buried the ball into the net with the sweetest of strikes.

But the visitors' defence, so strong in the 1-1 stalemate in Portugal, lacked solidity and organisation.

Niall McGinn offers Northern Ireland creativity from the wing but he only lasted 32 minutes before being forced off with injury, allowing Michael O'Connor to make his first appearance under O'Neill.

When the Aberdeen starlet is in full flow, Northern Ireland are always going to pose a greater attacking threat and his withdrawal was a significant blow.

Other than Paterson's goal, O'Neill's side flattered to deceive and sunk like a stone with the favourites tag forcing them under. Before the match O'Neill called for his troops to play with "common sense" but the players proceeded to give their boss a torturous spell on the touchline.

O'Neill produced his hairdryer after the 4-2 defeat against Portugal on Friday and it would have been plugged in again at half-time.

But it was Luxembourg who stayed on the front foot after the break and Stefano Bensi aimed a low shot wide after Carroll lifted a backpass from Gareth McAuley.

Bensi beat Carroll with a superb drive into the bottom corner but then McAuley got on the end of Oliver Norwood's free-kick and his downward header crept in at the far post.

The winner came in the 87th minute when Mathias Janisch stabbed home following another defensive meltdown.

Northern Ireland were without the suspended Chris Brunt and Kyle Lafferty while the injured Aaron Hughes would have brought experience and tactical nous to the backline but there are no excuses for this debacle.

A year ago Luxembourg came to Windsor and left in buoyant mood having come from behind to secure a 1-1 draw. Today they will be drinking champagne.

Exactly five years ago yesterday Luxembourg beat Switzerland 2-1 in a World Cup qualifier so Northern Ireland should have spotted the omen!

O'Neill said his side's performance was "unacceptable".

No-one was prepared to argue with him.

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