Belfast Telegraph

Michael O'Neill positive despite Northern Ireland's loss to Scotland

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill was pleased with his side's performance at Hampden Park despite tasting yet another friendly defeat and he singled out some of his younger players for praise.

A late header by substitute Christophe Berra gave Scotland a narrow but deserved 1-0 win and condemned O'Neill to his sixth friendly loss in nine such games.

However, the former Shamrock Rovers chief saw some encouraging signs in a Glasgow battle that lacked a real competitive edge.

He said: "We can take an awful lot (from the performance). We ended up with three 20-year-olds or under-20-year-olds on the pitch.

"The likes of Paddy McNair, Luke McCullough, Ryan McLaughlin - it's great for those lads to get minutes in this type of game.

"There were a lot of pluses - Michael McGovern did very well for us. We just allowed Scotland to press us at times and we didn't create as much as we would have liked but there were more positives from the performance than negatives."

Visiting keeper McGovern made several saves in the first half to keep an enterprising home side at bay, most notably from Steven Fletcher and Ikechi Anya.

The Scots also had the best of a second half which was punctuated with substitutions but it looked like ending in a stalemate until the 85th minute when Ipswich defender Berra, these days down the pecking order but who had replaced Russell Martin, headed in a corner from debutant Matt Ritchie.

O'Neill (right) added: "When you make so many substitutions, you are continually changing markers from set-pieces. Under normal circumstances, I don't think we'd have lost that goal - and it's disappointing for Michael, who had a good game.

"We left seven or eight of our first team players out, so it's positive to get some of the boys more experience."

Though disappointed to lose the friendly, Northern Ireland are considerably more desperate for a win at home to Finland on Sunday in a blockbuster Euro 2016 qualifier.

Former Northern Ireland defender John O'Neill said: "That was a glorified practice game, as we expected. We'd rather have had a 0-0 than a 1-0 defeat but all eyes are on Sunday - that is a big game.

"It's the first time we've been in with a genuine shout of qualification for a major finals for a long, long time."

Gordon Strachan cut a happy figure after his Scotland side warmed up for Sunday's Euro 2016 qualifier against Gibraltar with a slender victory.

Strachan hailed his side's performance but admitted there was room for improvement ahead of Sunday's match. "I'm happy a lot of the lads who've not played a lot recently got a game, and boys who have not had caps recently, who deserved them, got their caps," Strachan said.

"I thought that the shape was good but there's one or two wee things I'd like to work on carrying on from here but we'll do that.

"I thought the first half hour was good for a friendly, we showed a good attitude. But the game wobbled and died a bit until the last 15 minutes.

"But we kept plugging away and doing the right things.

"And to win the game and keep a clean sheet is good.

"I got what I expected from the players. Some were better than others. We'll do some hard work on Friday and Saturday and I have a plan in mind for Sunday and we go into the game feeling good about ourselves.

"I was delighted for Darren Fletcher. I thought he was terrific for the whole game. (On the captaincy) I've got decisions to make, good ones..."

Match-winner Berra admitted that Northern Ireland were tough opponents to break down.

"It was a difficult game, they made it very difficult," he said. "When teams do that it's very hard to break them down.

"Sometimes games are won on set-pieces and luckily enough I managed to get my head on the end of a good corner kick and it just sneaked in."

Former Scotland defender Willie Miller observed: "The game was spoiled a bit because Northern Ireland had little interest in getting forward."

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