Belfast Telegraph

Same old rubbish from Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland team

By Steven Beacom

More of the same then. Northern Ireland were appalling against Cyprus last night – another pitiful performance from Michael O'Neill's men.

And to cap an embarrassing effort from our international side Gareth McAuley became the latest player to be sent off under the current boss when he saw red for a shocking second half challenge.

New year it may be, but this was the same old rubbish from Northern Ireland.

The only difference was that they somehow managed to scramble a scoreless draw rather than stumble to a humiliating defeat that would have gone down on a list with Luxembourg and Azerbaijan at the top of it.

Before the friendly in Nicosia, O'Neill talked positively about earning a rare victory to breed confidence for the challenges ahead in 2014.

There was little chance of that with the diabolical display delivered by the visitors.

They lacked quality, focus and discipline. No invention, no ideas and on the evidence of this not much hope for the future either.

When the 2016 European Championship qualifying draw was made recently, it provided Northern Ireland with a favourable group. There was optimism that the team could challenge for at least third place and get themselves into a play-off for the finals in France.

After the drab, dire, dismal stuff in Cyprus, confidence will be low again about this bunch doing anything special.

What is the matter with these guys? At club level they produce far better than the dross served up last night. Throw a Northern Ireland shirt on and more often than not most of them seem to lose every basic skill they have. Others don't appear to look bothered.

Against Russia and Portugal in the World Cup they stepped up to the mark, but put them in against teams they should beat comfortably and they freeze, unable to perform and live up to expectations.

In November, O'Neill was given a two-year extension to his contract.

Surely he needs to get much more out of the players to see that out.

Only in the first 10 minutes last night, when Martin Paterson missed an excellent headed chance to open the scoring, did Northern Ireland look a capable outfit.

After the promising start came the big let down. Northern Ireland lost heart, their shape and possession too easily.

It was alarming to see how ineffective Premier League players like Steven Davis and Chris Brunt were with the ball at their feet.

Beside them in midfield Oliver Norwood was anonymous. Jamie Ward and Niall McGinn, on the flanks, were almost as bad and after his wasted opportunity Paterson drifted out of the game.

Defensively Northern Ireland weren't exactly solid, allowing the home side to carve out several openings but, thankfully, St Johnstone goalkeeper Alan Mannus was in fine form and the Cypriots couldn't finish a fish supper.

In the second half, substitute Kyle Lafferty offered more presence up front for the visitors though didn't see enough of the ball as Cyprus maintained their dominance. If one team was going to win, it was going to be them, especially when McAuley got himself dismissed for a rash tackle on Demetris Chrisofi with 14 minutes left.

It was a friendly and the WBA defender could have been dealt with a little more leniently by the official because of that but, even so, it was still a desperate lunge by a player caught out of position.

O'Neill has to get a grip of this problem. In the World Cup qualifiers Brunt, Lafferty and Jonny Evans saw red and a host of yellow cards were collected leading to suspensions. In the first game of 2014, we get another sending off. Northern Ireland find it hard enough to compete with 11 men, let alone 10.

In the latter stages, with Cyprus pressing for what would have been a shock win, Alex Bruce and Craig Cathcart stood firm at the back and Roy Carroll, on for Mannus at the break, made an impressive save to keep a clean sheet and salvage a draw.

Hardly cause for celebration on another bitterly disappointing night.

Belfast Telegraph


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