Belfast Telegraph

Cruel end to a frustrating year for Northern Ireland

N Ireland 1-2 Austria

Scrappy battle: Northern Ireland's Jonny Evans and Austria's Xaver Schlager compete
Scrappy battle: Northern Ireland's Jonny Evans and Austria's Xaver Schlager compete
Tempers flare between the players
Corry Evans celebrates his goal

By Paul Ferguson

After enduring a largely frustrating 2018, it should have come as no surprise for Northern Ireland to lose their final international match of the year in such agonising and self-destructing fashion.

From the exhilaration of Ireland's historic victory over the All Blacks, to the agony of a last-second defeat. Sport can be marvellous and also so cruel.

Two minutes into injury time, with the game 1-1, following Corry Evans' first goal in eight years, and the Belgian referee about to blow for full time, Northern Ireland lost possession, were caught out in terms of defensive cover and paid the ultimate price with the largely disappointing Valentino Lazaro curling his shot into the top corner of Trevor Carson's net.

West Ham's star striker Marko Arnautovic, a second-half substitute, brought on to add much-needed vigour to the Austrians, provided the assist and was once again the scourge of Northern Ireland following his winning goal in Vienna last month.

Northern Ireland have lost all four Nations League games, finish bottom of their group, are relegated, yet the overall standard of performance from Michael O'Neill's men during the last three months has been deeply encouraging. Hard to believe when you review the table, but then a scoreline doesn't always tell the true story.

A draw last night would have been a decent result, even a confidence boost ahead of the 2020 Euro qualifiers which kick-off in March.

This time last year Corry Evans was disconsolate to have a controversial refereeing decision go against him which ultimately gifted Switzerland a passage through to the World Cup finals in Russia. Twleve months on, he was suddenly the toast of Windsor Park for a large period last night after his equalising goal, which was his first in 45 matches, since away to Slovenia in 2010, appeared to be giving Northern Ireland a deserved draw following's Xaver Schlager opener for the Austrians just four minutes into the second half.

Wearing black armbands in honour of former kitman Derek McKinley, who sadly passed away last Friday, Northern Ireland made four changes from the side that drew with the Republic as O'Neill placed Craig Cathcart and Gavin Whyte on the bench and gave the night off Bailey Peacock Farrell and Jamal Lewis - players who have been regulars with their clubs this season.

Defender Gareth McAuley made his long-awaited return to the team alongside Jonny Evans, Motherwell's Trevor Carson won his fifth cap in goal and Niall McGinn and Jordan Jones both started on the wings.

With Arnautovic on the bench, due to a knee injury, Austria still had top quality on the pitch in Bayern Munich's David Alaba and skipper Julian Baumgartlinger - two players who had missed the first match at the Ernst Happel Stadium.

Northern Ireland, for the fourth Nations League game in a row, produced plenty of endeavour in their performance going forward with Jonny Evans excelling at the tidying up at the back.

Burton's Liam Boyce was showing tremendous tenacity with his hold up play and it was his perseverance and confusion in the Austrian on six minutes which allowed Corry Evans to fire a shot from the edge of the box which took two deflections forcing Heinz Lindner to tip the ball over for a corner.

Alaba had Austria's first decent chance on goal, when after being brought down by Saville on the edge of the box, Bayern Munich ace stepped up and just whipped his free kick over the bar.

Stuart Dallas was racing forward at every opportunity from left back giving added impetus to the Northern Ireland attack, Saville, tigerish in midfield, was doing well to win the important free kicks for his side, Steven Davis was comfortable in the deep midfield role and Carson didn't have a save on target to make.

Northern Ireland were trying to make the most of McAuley's return from set pieces but actually used him as a decoy with Boyce the target on many occasions while their struggles in the final third continued with McGinn hitting Corry Evans with a shot and Jordan Jones and Boyce getting in the way of each other as the trigger was about to be pulled.

Set pieces were looking Northern Ireland's most likely way to a goal and McGinn was inches away with a lovely curling free kick just two minutes from the interval.

Austria brought on Peter Zulj for midfielder Stefan Ilsanker at half time and the substitute made an immediate impact as Northern Ireland were caught cold down the left by some nice integrate Austrian play.

Zulj played it across the box under pressure from McAuley, Davis was unable to cut it out and even though Saville attempted the tackle, Xaver Schlager was able to sweep the ball past Carson and into the bottom right hand corner.

The Northern Ireland players had been here before.

Jonny Evans then appealed for a penalty against Aleksandar Dragovic but it was an innocuous challenge, Davis from the penalty spot had a shot blocked and Northern Ireland were struggling to test goalkeeper Heinz Lindner.

Suddenly Kilmarnock's Jones showed great skill and determination to keep possession and Northern Ireland's attack alive, fed Corry Evans who drilled a shot that deflected off Martin Hinteregger and into the net. The majority of the 17,895 inside Windsor Park cheered as much out of relief as delight.

This game might have had little consequence to either teams but the goal actually galvanised the Austrians who should have done better when goalscorer Schlager couldn't direct a bullet of a pass goalwards when just 10 yards out, Alaba struck a fearsome drive just wide, coach Franco Foda brought on their main striker Arnautovic and then Alaba once again missed the target from close range.

The Bayern Munich star was becoming increasingly frustrated.

O'Neill responded by making a double substitution with prodigal son Kyle Lafferty and exciting prospect Gavin Whyte replacing Boyce and McGinn respectively.

Lafferty, after last minute words of encouragement from boss O'Neill, was full of fight and determination while Saville came close to opening his international account following his introduction.

On a cold November evening, the game suddenly heated up as McAuley tangled with the robust Arnautovic on 78 minutes and picked up a yellow card with Alaba also booked for getting involved in some needless pushing and shoving following the altercation.

Saville came close again and Northern Ireland, while soaking up pressure, were determined to stay on the attack until the final whistle.

That may have been their downfall as Jones and Dallas looking to keep an attack alive struggled, the Leeds man lost possession, Arnautovic received the ball who passed it square to Lazaro, who managed to turn and set himself up before sending an unstoppable shot into the top corner.

Manager Michael O'Neill kicked a bucket of balls in anger on the sidelines while the crowd was stunned into silence.

O'Neill will be glad to see the back of this international year.

The Euro qualifiers start in March and he can only hope for improved fortunes in 2019.

NORTHERN IRELAND: Carson, Smith, McAuley, Jonny Evans, Dallas, Corry Evans (McNair 88), Davis, Saville, McGinn (Whyte 74), Boyce (Lafferty 74), Jones.

Subs Not Used: McGovern, McLaughlin, Thompson, Ferguson, Hughes, Vassell, Cathcart, Magennis, Hazard.

AUSTRIA: Lindner, Lainer, Dragovic, Hinteregger, Ulmer, Ilsanker (Zulj 46), Baumgartlinger, Lazaro, Schlager, Alaba, Gregoritsch (Arnautovic 71).

Subs Not Used: Strebinger, Wimmer, Goiginger, Schaub, Kainz, Schopf, Hierlander, Janko,Stankovic.

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