Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland's Gareth McAuley: We'll hold our hands up

McAuley relishing next game after admitting NI weren't good enough

By Paul Ferguson

After a pointless trip to Dracula's home country, Gareth McAuley promises Northern Ireland will show more bite against Finland in their next Euro 2016 qualifier.

Northern Ireland produced their most disappointing performance of the campaign so far in Bucharest, going down 2-0 to arguably the best team in Group F.

The visitors failed to keep possession, which encouraged Romania to attack them at will.

Without the calming, composed and creative influence of skipper Steven Davis, out injured with a hamstring issue, Northern Ireland never looked comfortable, always pressurised.

There was no supply route to lone striker Kyle Lafferty, who was forced to live off scraps.

Injured attacking midfielder Jamie Ward, who plays in the hole, was badly missed and central midfielders Corry Evans, Ollie Norwood and Chris Baird were constantly on the back foot.

The momentum gained in Budapest, Belfast and Athens was not built on against Romania.

Stand-in captain McAuley says Northern Ireland must return to the Michael O'Neill inspired style of football that helped them win their opening three games and accumulate nine points, which places them second in Group F behind Romania.

Sadly, Northern Ireland must wait four long months before they return to competitive Euro 2016 qualifying action against Mixu Paatelainen's Finland at Windsor Park.

The Finns are on four points and lie fourth in the group following a victory over the Faroe Islands and a draw with Greece.

They've lost out to both Romania and Hungary in their other two games to date.

"Obviously March is a long way away and a lot can happen between now and then but it could be worse, we could be Greece," said McAuley with a pointed reference to the fact the Greeks were humiliated by a 1-0 defeat to the Faroe Islands on Friday night, lie last in Group F on just one point and sacked high profile manager Claudio Ranieri just 24 hours after the horror show in Athens.

"We are disappointed in how we failed to use the ball well when we had it. We knew we were going to be under the cosh and we had to try and counter attack.

"Although we rode our luck in the first half a couple of times we had chances of our own as well and we could have used the ball a bit better and caused them a few more problems.

"That might have eased things a bit for us, but having said that we knew they were the best team in the group, and we knew what to expect from them in terms of their game plan, having studied them beforehand.

"We just didn't apply ourselves in the way we should have.

"Now we want to get our teeth into the next game.

"The points we've won so far have been great, we're happy with the total but with our next game at home we know that on our day we can beat anyone.

"We'll certainly reorganise again and we'll probably play a different way against Finland to how we set out against Romania.

"And we need to reorganise because we're disappointed, not so much in the fact that we lost, but in the way that we didn't play like we can when we had the ball. We gave it away too cheaply."

The main architect of Romania's constant threat was Steaua Bucharest's playmaker Lucian Sanmartean.

He may be 34-years-old and have only won 10 international caps throughout his career, but McAuley can easily see why he is compared to the great Romanian, Gheorghi Hagi.

Paul Papp may have been the two-goal hero for Romania, but Sanmartean was the star performer in yellow.

West Brom defender McAuley says in the modern time, he is quite similar to Italy's creative genius Andrea Pirlo.

"Romania play great football and their number 17 (Sanmartean) was the best forward passer of a ball I've seen," concedes McAuley, who is also 34 but will turn 35 early next month.

"He was slipping balls through the eye of a needle to guys in little pockets because he had time on the ball.

"He cut us apart and we changed the system to counter that at half time.

"He was so influential and thinking back he's a bit like (Andrea) Pirlo, in that when you give a player like that time on the ball, he can pick passes all over the park all day long.

"The really disappointing thing is that we didn't really start to play until we went a goal behind but that is easy to do," concluded McAuley, who returns to West Brom still looking for his first start in the Barclays Premier League this season.

Belfast Telegraph