Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland head to Euro 2016 unbeaten in 12 after Slovakia draw

Slovakia 0 Northern Ireland 0

By Adrian Rutherford

Northern Ireland drew a blank in Slovakia in their final warm-up match before Euro 2016.

It is now 12 unbeaten for Michael O’Neill’s side after a battling draw in Trnava.

Slovakia, who face Wales and England at the Euros, provided an excellent test for the side’s growing confidence.

But on a difficult night Northern Ireland held firm.

Michael McGovern made several terrific saves, including one where he denied Robert Mak one-on-one in the first half.

While the result was important in terms of morale, O’Neill will be relieved to have emerged relatively unscathed after his players were on the end of some shocking challenges.

The main worry was Craig Cathcart, who hobbled off after 30 minutes after taking a knock.

However, it is understood he was withdrawn merely as a precaution.

Cathcart’s premature exit saw Aaron Hughes come off the bench to make his 100th appearance - a landmark night for the veteran defender.

The draw leaves Northern Ireland in good shape ahead of their arrival in France on Sunday afternoon.

They kick off against Poland in Nice next weekend.

O’Neill, in his final selection before that opening game, again opted for three at the back.

Jonny Evans started alongside Cathcart and Gareth McAuley.

Ahead of them, Steven Davis was the driving force in midfield, with Kyle Lafferty up front, just off Jamie Ward.

The Slovakian side included Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel and Napoli playmaker Marek Hamsik.

Having beaten Germany 3-1 six days earlier, they were always going to be a real test.

And Northern Ireland were under pressure at times in a testing first half which was marked by a series of reckless challenges from the home side.

O’Neill’s men had the first chance of the night after eight minutes.

A brilliant bit of skill from Davis created the chance for Lafferty, but his shot was blocked by a defender.

Slovakia’s first chance came on 15 minutes as Weiss received a cutback and drilled a low shot just wide.

They went close again as Patrik Hrosovsky flashed a terrific ball across the face of goal, but Michal Duris wasn’t able to make contact.

There were worrying moments for O’Neill when McAuley then Evans went down, but both were able to continue.

However, Cathcart was not so fortunate when he took a knock and was unable to continue.

It meant Hughes was summoned from the bench for his 100th cap.

The home side went close five minutes before the break after beating Northern Ireland’s attempt to play offside.

Mak raced clean through, but McGovern made a terrific block.

Northern Ireland went close on the stroke of half time.

Chris Baird’s free-kick was spilled by Slovakia goalkeeper Matus Kozacik.

Davis was alive to the rebound but failed to take advantage, although an offside flag meant it wouldn't have counted anyway.

O’Neill brought on Josh Magennis for the second half in place of Ward.

But Slovakia continued to threaten, and Weiss should have put them in front when he collected a fabulous through-ball from Patrik Hrosovsky, only to lift his effort over.

Weiss went close again from a free-kick, awarded after a foul which saw Paddy McNair booked. The effort was well watched by McGovern, who collected the ball easily.

Lafferty made way for Conor Washington after 55 minutes, and the striker nearly marked his introduction with a goal.

He aimed for the near post, with the goalkeeper reacting sharply to turn the ball wide.

In the 81st minute Hamsik threw himself at a cross from Peter Pekarik but couldn’t make contact.

At the other end Skrtel almost turned a delivery from McNair into his own net, but was saved by his goalkeeper.

SLOVAKIA: Kozacik, Pekarik, Skrtel, Durica, Svento, Hrosovsky, Kucka (Nemec, 83), Hamsik, Weiss, Mak (Stoch, 65), Duris (Duda, 65)

Subs: Mucha, Novota, Gregus, Sestak, Gyomber, Salata, Pecovsky, Skriniar

NORTHERN IRELAND: McGovern, Cathcart (Hughes, 30), McAuley, J Evans, McNair (McLaughlin, 90), Ferguson (Hodson, 86), Baird, Norwood (C Evans, 83), Davis, Ward (Magennis, 46), Lafferty (Washington, 55)

Subs: Carroll, Mannus, McGinn, Grigg, McCullough

Referee: Radu Petrescu (Romania)

Belfast Telegraph