Northern Ireland made to pay for a Slo start
Slovakia 2 Northern Ireland 1
The Northern Ireland players’ faces painted a pitiful picture as they walked to their coach outside the crumbling Tehelne Pole Stadium in Bratislava.
Dejected, frustrated and angry, it was as though their whole world had come crashing down.
Defeat to Slovakia had not been on the agenda.
This match was supposed to be the first successful step on the long road to South Africa and the 2010 World Cup finals.
Instead Northern Ireland suffered the ignominy of their fourth opening campaign defeat in eight years and already face an uphill struggle to qualify from Group Three.
It also means they have won only one away match in 17 World Cup qualifiers — a damning statistic.
And now they have the formidable task of taking on the classy Czech Republic at Windsor Park on Wednesday night.
But first they must get over this loss, because it hurt — it hurt big time.
The players, manager and 1,600 Green and White Army fans who travelled to Bratislava knew it was an opportunity missed.
While in the previous opening campaign defeats in recent years to Spain, Poland and Iceland, you came away feeling at times disillusioned — this was different.
Northern Ireland made two sloppy mistakes and they were punished severely by a Slovakian side who won their first match under new coach Vladimir Weiss.
Other than that, Northern Ireland goalkeeper Maik Taylor hardly had a save to make.
Nigel Worthington’s men enjoyed plenty of possession, created chances and looked lively and dangerous even in energy sapping heat.
Their only reward though was an own goal scored by Jan Durica with nine minutes to go after a terrific and tantalising cross from Chris Brunt.
The damage however had already been done.
After receiving a scare on 37 minutes when Marek Hamsik’s goal was ruled out for offside, Northern Ireland conceded seconds after the re-start.
International veteran Keith Gillespie gave away a free kick deep inside his own half and from the resulting set piece taken by Marek Sapara, Liverpool’s Martin Skrtel rose highest to head home their opener.
Boss Worthington was incandescent with rage on the sidelines that his men had allowed Skrtel the freedom of the Bratislava skies and their own 18 yard box.
Worse though was to follow 25 minutes later. The Northern Ireland players were left incensed that Russian referee Nikolay Ivanov had not awarded a penalty when it clearly looked as if a Slovakian defender blocked a shot with his arms.
As they continued to argue, Slovakia broke away and won a free kick. Taking it quickly, Durica nicely headed the ball for Marek Hamsik to tap it past Taylor from close range.
Worthington’s men were shellshocked.
Even the passionate and vocal Green and White Army, all 1,600 of them, were silenced.
For Slovakia are ordinary — an average side that Northern Ireland ripped open at will on occasions but simply could not find that killer shot or header to beat goalkeeper Stefan Senecky.
Northern Ireland’s all-time leading goalscorer David Healy, up front on his own in Worthington’s 4-5-1 formation, had looked his usual potent self and Keith Gillespie, who was playing his first match of the season having been out with an ankle injury, was the main supply route for the Killyleagh man.
Healy had a couple of excellent chances when he was put clear by Sammy Clingan and then Martin Paterson but each time he pulled the trigger, the ball failed to make an impression on the Slovak goal.
It left 29-year-old Healy exacerbated.
Sunderland new boy Healy actually should have had his own shot at goal after only eight minutes when he was found brilliantly by Gillespie in acres of space inside the Slovak penalty box. But instead of hitting a rasping volley at goal, he was unselfish and set up the charging Clingan who drilled the ball straight at Senecky.
Left back George McCartney, at times vulnerable in defence, was a constant threat for Northern Ireland from set plays and had three terrific headers towards goal.
And surprisingly Northern Ireland, considering the huge difference in height between the giant Slovaks and our men in green, looked dangerous from corners.
Chris Baird was unfortunate to glance a header wide of the goal on 10 minutes but it was McCartney who the Slovaks seemed to always fail to pick up.
When Northern Ireland were awarded corners in the second half, the ball was aimed in his direction. And McCartney, who returned to Sunderland this week, was furious with himself on 51 minutes for not bringing the scores level when he raced into the box but headed the ball over the bar.
Northern Ireland, after being thrown a lifeline by Durica’s own goal on 81 minutes, stepped up the tempo and attempted to bombard the Slovak goal.
Clear cut opportunities were at a premium though which further frustrated the Northern Ireland boys.
And it was really only in the dying seconds that Northern Ireland came extremely close to earning a point. Warren Feeney, a second-half substitute for Gillespie, who took a bad knock and is a doubt for Wednesday night, was fed the ball by returning skipper Aaron Hughes on the edge of the Slovak box. Feeney though was leaning back on his shot and therefore didn’t get the power he wanted but Senecky still forced it over the bar.
Then came the most truly magnificent save to deny McCartney and Northern Ireland. Brunt pinpointed a corner kick straight to McCartney, who’s downward bullet header looked destined for the back of the net, however Senecky managed grab it from the air and hold onto it — much to the relief of the sparse Slovakian crowd.
Senecky’s actions were to be the final nail in Northern Ireland’s coffin as the whistle sounded seconds later.
Opening defeat yet again in a campaign and the realisation that Northern Ireland will need yet another magical performance against the Czech Republic on Wednesday night if they are to stay in contention already in Group Three.
Expect to see Worthington revert back to a tried and tested 4-4-2 formation with Dundee United’s Feeney the striker likely to join Healy up front.
We’re traditionally slow starters who like to make life difficult for ourselves.
Thankfully we’ve still a year and half left to make the journey to South Africa.
Damage has been done but it could be quickly repaired on Wednesday night in Belfast.
And in turn change those Northern Ireland tears to cheers.
SLOVAKIA: Senecky, Durica, Skrtel, Pekarik, Petras, Karhan (Zabavnik 75), Kozak, Jakubko (Svento 58), Hamsik, Sapara, Vittek. Subs: Mucha, Novak, Zabavnik, Svento, Mintal, Obzera, Sebo.
NORTHERN IRELAND: Taylor, Hughes, McCartney, Evans, Craigan, Baird (Shiels 78), Clingan, Davis, Gillespie (Feeney 53), Paterson (Brunt 78), Healy. Subs: Mannus, McAuley, Brunt, McGivern, Shiels,Thompson, Feeney.
Referee: Nikolay Ivanov (Russia)