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World Cup 2018

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Big talking points from NI tour

By Paul Ferguson

Northern Ireland finished their two-game tour of Central America with a 3-0 defeat to World Cup-bound Costa Rica on Sunday.

Michael O'Neill, due to at least 10 regular players being unavailable, was forced to mix experience with a number of rookies.

I was in both Panama and Costa Rica with the Northern Ireland team. Here are the key talking points from the tour. NI feel the heat

ON the eve of the first match in Panama, a local was watching Northern Ireland train at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez when he said: "The weather is our best player".

So it proved, not just in Panama but Costa Rica too, with temperatures over 30 degrees and the humidity in Panama City stifling.

The Northern Ireland players are incredibly fit but that just about got them through the game.

When laptops are overheating at the Estadio Nacional, San Jose and some of the photographers pitch-side are suffering from heatstroke, it is ridiculously hot.

The players couldn't perform their natural quick-paced game and were using their energy to close players down, while their opponents were accustomed to playing in the extreme heat.

Costa Rica played the game at 11am to avoid the violent showers which usually occur during the afternoon during the rainy season. But the Northern Ireland players would have much preferred the heavens opening up rather than the glaring sun on their backs.

Maybe it would have proved a much more even playing field.

Was it worth it?

O'Neill certainly thinks going to Central America with a heavily depleted squad was a worthwhile exercise.

After defeat on Sunday to Costa Rica, he said the alternative was to play a non-descript team at Windsor Park and not learn anything about his team.

O'Neill had a week's training with the six Under-21 players in his squad and got to see them up close and personal which will give him a good idea about their personalities and what they offer. Also, the week of bonding between experienced pros and the rookies will hold Northern Ireland in good stead.

While it must have been bitterly disappointing for those fans who spent thousands on getting to Central America, the bigger picture suggests Northern Ireland have a bright future - provided those young players can make the breakthrough and be consistent at their clubs.

We're keeping just fine

A year ago, O'Neill was deeply concerned about the goalkeeping talent coming through to challenge Michael McGovern.

But now he is spoilt for choice. On the Central American tour, two young goalkeepers made their debuts and Motherwell's Trevor Carson staked his claim for the No.1 spot ahead of McGovern.

Bailey Peacock-Farrell, who was in fine form for Leeds in the Championship towards the end of the season, played a full half against Panama, while Conor Hazard, a hot prospect at Celtic, was given 18 minutes towards the end of the Costa Rica defeat.

Both young goalkeepers are over 6ft 4in and Peacock-Farrell in particular has commanding presence of his 18-yard box.

Hazard was on loan to Falkirk last season but is hoping to make the breakthrough at Parkhead. Peacock-Farrell was a favourite of Paul Heckingbottom, but with him out at Elland Road, it will be interesting to see if he is given a chance to impress again.

With McGovern coming back in September, four into three does not go, so O'Neill will have to decide who to leave out.

Forward planning

The Northern Ireland front line is a worry for O'Neill.

He'd hoped Josh Magennis and Liam Boyce would create a spark in attack on tour, but both failed to fire.

A lack of service didn't help the duo but, apart from a few nice touches, they will both be disappointed, and Magennis admitted after the Costa Rica match that his hold-up play could have been much better.

In September, O'Neill can bring back Kyle Lafferty, Conor Washington and Jamie Ward, but he needs a consistent goal scorer. It appears Will Grigg will not return, so Northern Ireland need to unearth a striker or hope that Lafferty's form from the Euro 2016 qualifiers returns.

Everton's Shayne Lavery really impressed his team-mates during training but he needs to get out on loan to a Championship or League One side to give himself valuable first-team experience. He is as strong as an ox and showed nice skills.

Senior moments

While it was great to see the introduction of the young guns, it also exposed the fact that the men in green are so reliant on their aging stars.

Defenders Gareth McAuley and Aaron Hughes, both six months past their 38th birthdays, played every minute in Panama City and San Jose, outperforming some of their experienced team-mates.

Jonny Evans did a decent job as a makeshift midfielder but you could tell he would have preferred to move back into the defence where he is comfortable.

Captain Steven Davis was badly missed. Provided he is injury free, Davis will return for the Nations League games in September and Northern Ireland will once again depend heavily on the Southampton ace. But Davis is 33 and, while George Saville and Paddy McNair are the future in midfield, he will still be the man that makes Northern Ireland tick.

West Brom's Chris Brunt is still deciding whether he wants to carry on. Even at 33 years of age and with Norwich's Jamal Lewis set to come into contention again, O'Neill still needs his invaluable experience.

Premier problems

With McAuley and Brunt dropping out of the Premier League, Northern Ireland desperately need players to fill their void in the top flight. It's vital O'Neill has players performing in the world's top league.

Defender Jonny Evans, ready to implement his £3m relegation release clause now West Brom have sunk into the Championship, should find a Premier League side soon, while Sunderland can't continue to keep hold of McNair with interest from Brighton and a London club.

McNair was the best midfielder on show against Panama but, like most of his team-mates, he struggled to impose himself on the game.

Davis' Southampton avoided the drop but how will new Saints chief Mark Hughes view his midfield master from Cullybackey? Craig Cathcart is looking forward to an injury-free season with Watford.

Ollie Norwood, of Brighton, may sign for Fulham, but the midfielder was mostly used off the bench last season in the Championship, so it remains to be seen how he would fit into their Premier League plans.

Belfast Telegraph

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