Belfast Telegraph

Another off night for Northern Ireland

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill admitted that once again his team underperformed as they struggled to a dire 0-0 draw in a friendly in Cyprus, where Gareth McAuley became his latest player to be sent off.

Following on from dismissals for Chris Brunt, Kyle Lafferty and Jonny Evans in the World Cup qualifiers, McAuley's second half red card came after a shocking lunge on Cyprus striker Demetris Christofi, who was threathening to break through.

At least an embarrassing defeat, like those suffered in Luxembourg and Azerbaijan last year, was avoided

"We are capable of a lot more than that," claimed O'Neill, who now has a record of one win in 16 matches as boss.

O'Neill added: "We had a number of players who never got to the pace of the game. When that happens you will struggle, particularly away from home

"I thought we started brightly but we lost our way a little bit. Our possession wasn't good and they were better on the ball. They put us under pressure because we continually gave the ball away cheaply and that was the most disappointing thing on the night.

"A draw, given the level of performance, probably isn't the worst result we could have got.

"In the middle of the pitch we didn't retain the ball well at all. Sometimes players suffer as a consequence of the team performance. It wasn't of the level we are capable of as a team."

On McAuley's red card, O'Neill said: "It looked like the guy was possibly through so Gareth was given a decision to make and stretches to get there.

"I would want to see it again but I wouldn't say it was totally unjustified. In a friendly game could the referee have given a yellow? Possibly he could have.

"It was disappointing to see one of our defenders put in that position after we gave the ball away in a poor area. Those are the things we are trying to eliminate from our game.

"It became a bit of a preservation job after that. I actually think we played some better stuff when we went down to 10 men."

The scoreless draw was the TENTH away friendly in a row in which Northern Ireland have failed to score stretching back to 2006. After the lift from a favourable 2016 European Championship qualifying draw, O'Neill rejected the claim that it had sapped some of the enthusiasm for that competition.

"The players have a sense of disappointment and hopefully that can drive them on. People have to realise we are trying to build an international team here and it will take time.

"We are miles away from being the finished article," said O'Neill, who revealed he apologised to substitute Billy McKay for replacing him shortly after coming on to shore things up at the back when McAuley was ordered off.




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