Belfast Telegraph

Only way is up for Northern Ireland but it’s a huge climb now

By Steven Beacom

What a way to lose. Heartbreaking, wasn't it? You get the feeling we've thrown away our hopes of qualifying for the Euro 2012 finals.

The dream is almost over. Worse, this qualifying campaign has taken a nightmare turn.

Entering Windsor Park last night, the Northern Ireland fans were thinking about a second place finish in Group C and earning a play-off spot.

Today they will look at the table and see Nigel Worthington's side in fifth!

Only the Faroe Islands are below us now.

It's a long way up to second. Everest, without climbing boots.

We have to rely on other results going our way and then probably take at least seven points out of nine in the remaining fixtures, one of which is in Italy.

On the evidence of last night there's no chance of that. Northern Ireland need to be much better than this.

They were outclassed for long periods at Windsor Park by the Serbs.

There was a sense inside the ground that the visitors were going to score at any given time they had so much possession.

It was ironic then that just when Worthington's men were enjoying their best spell having weathered a storm on a bitter, wet evening, we handed them victory on a plate.

Serbia's goal was a gift. Wrapped up in a green bow.

Had the Serbs carved us open with sublime football, it would have been easier to accept, but the dreadful mistake which allowed Marko Pantelic to score the only goal of the game made the outcome tougher to take.

Especially when that mistake was made by Steve Davis. Of all people.

Since Davis won his first cap back in 2005, he has hardly put a foot wrong.

The Rangers ace has been our best midfielder in recent years, providing invention and skill. There's also been plenty of graft to go with all that craft, making him a big favourite on the Kop.

With his vision and accuracy you would think he'd be the last player to misplace a pass but that was the case last night leading to Pantelic racing on and rounding Lee Camp midway through the second half to net in the deciding moment of the game.

Camp (pictured), who had an outstanding game with numerous outstanding saves, could do nothing about it.

Davis, one of our better outfield players on a night when few shone, looked shattered.

Sorry to say, but when all the points are added up at the end of this campaign, that calamity could be the difference between reaching the play-offs and not.

To have any chance of getting in the mix again, we must win in Estonia on Tuesday. That might be a lot tougher than we initially thought, because after a stunning 2-1 victory in Slovenia last night, suddenly the Estonians are in contention again.

Worthington's men will go to Estonia without Jonny Evans, who stupidly got himself booked in injury time — his second yellow card of the campaign.

He was lucky not to be sent off as he lost the plot committing three crazy fouls in a matter of seconds.

The Manchester United defender could be a Northern Ireland great in the future, but he will not look back at his antics in the dying moments last night with any pride.

And this after playing pretty well at the back, as the defence were tested time and time again by a slick Serbian outfit.

To their credit Camp and the back four of Craig Cathcart, Aaron Hughes, Gareth McAuley and Evans had somehow kept a clean sheet up until Steve's shocker.

Weakened by the absence of Kyle Lafferty, Paddy McCourt and Sammy Clingan, Northern Ireland couldn't get to grips with the game at all.

Too often David Healy was expected to win high balls and on the rare occasion that the home side put something together, Corry Evans missed a good headed chance.

Evans junior, booked and also out of the Estonia trip, again disappointed at Windsor. Niall McGinn will start on Tuesday, just as he should have done last night.

Near the end a Northern Ireland fan threw his shirt in frustration at Worthington.

After this one-sided affair don't go putting your shirt on us to be at Euro 2012.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph