How below par Northern Ireland saw off Belarus to top Group C ahead of Germany and the Netherlands
N Ireland 2 Belarus 1
A below par Northern Ireland toppled the mighty Netherlands from the summit of Group C – but only after a dramatic late winner from Josh Magennis and Bailey Peacock-Farrell’s last ditch save confirmed victory over a resilient Belarus at Windsor Park last night.
Northern Ireland played their get out of jail card to claim their second home win of the Euro 2020 qualifiers, sit pretty in the group on six points and remain on course to be challenging the Dutch and Germans to make it through to the finals across Europe next year.
Jonny Evans headed home just his third international goal to give the home side the lead on the half hour mark, but three minutes later Belarus — ranked 78th in the world but considered the best team in Pot Five — had equalised as Michael O’Neill’s men switched off, allowing Igor Stasevich to strike a deflected shot off Stuart Dallas and into the net.
Northern Ireland laboured for much of the second half, with many of the players feeling the effects of two matches in four days after little game time at their clubs recently, but the substitutes and change of style O’Neill introduced as the game wore on had a lethal impact.
Just three minutes from time, Magennis finished a move he started by stroking the ball home and sending the capacity crowd into raptures.
With the Dutch losing to the Germans last night, Northern Ireland are three points clear at the top of Group C.
O’Neill kept faith with the same starting XI that began their opening qualifier against Estonia last Thursday night, but Belarus made five changes from the side that were defeated 4-0 by the Netherlands. Former Arsenal and Barcelona midfielder Aleksandr Hleb, now 37, was brought into the midfield while Andrei Klimovic replaced Andrei Gorbunov, who was between the posts the last time Belarus were in Belfast.
There was a much improved atmosphere from the flat experience against Estonia but the home support had very little to cheer in the opening exchanges and Northern Ireland had to wait until the 20th minute to test the visiting keeper.
From a short Dallas throw, Paddy McNair turned his man and burst in on goal before firing a shot that stung the hands of Klimovich.
Belarus, especially when being sparked into life by Hleb, looked dangerous with Denis Laptev and his huge 6ft 4ins frame proving to be a nuisance but not a huge problem for Evans.
In similar fashion, fellow Premier League defender Cathcart looked so assured at the back, marshalling the defence when Belarus forged an attack.
Lafferty’s dipping shot from 30 yards on 29 minutes was parried by Klimovich for a corner and, from the resulting set play, Northern Ireland broke the deadlock. Niall McGinn whipped in a cross after receiving a short corner and skipper Steven Davis flicked it on for Evans to rise highest and direct his header past the outstretched hand of Klimovich.
But rather than galvanise Northern Ireland further, the men in green became sloppy and were punished with an equaliser.
The Belarusians sliced through the home defence with the creative Hleb feeding Igor Staseevich. The BATE Borisov forward was allowed to cut inside and fired a shot goalwards that struck Dallas and looped over the head of Peacock-Farrell and into the net.
Northern Ireland were stunned, Windsor Park was silenced and O’Neill’s men struggled to regroup quickly as Belarus tried to take advantage of their surprise attack.
Leeds United ace Dallas, playing once again at right back, was being used an offensive weapon with his long throws and on 36 minutes Saville latched on to the ball at speed in the box but saw his shot well blocked.
Three minutes later, Kilmarnock wing wizard Jordan Jones beat three men on the left flank before sending in a tantaliasing cross that Lafferty failed to take advantage of.
Northern Ireland were expected to play with a sense of urgency, to increase the tempo and suffocate the opposition throughout the second period, but they were sluggish, passing was poor and they failed to capitalise on any attacking endeavour.
George Saville and Davis were struggling to impose themselves on the game, Lafferty was mostly living off scraps up front against the huge centre halves and Jones couldn’t find the final ball required after some dazzling runs.
Rangers hitman Lafferty did get away from his man, Mikhail Sivakov, on a few occasions but he was uunable to force the keeper to make a save.
After Hleb was replaced on 65 minutes by Anton Putilo, O’Neill brought on Josh Magennis for the sadly ineffective McGinn, who of course was a goal hero against Estonia.
Jamal Lewis, always keen on getting forward from his left back position, showed his pace by beating his man on 78 minutes and sent in a terrific cross that Klimovich managed to get a hand on before Lafferty could deflect the ball into the net.
That was to be last action for the big Kesh man as Liam Boyce was introuduced to the fray but it was his fellow substitute Magennis who made the biggest impact when he netted Northern Ireland’s winner as the clock closed in on 90 minutes and a nervous Windsor watched nervously.
The Bolton man was heavily involved in the move as he played a nice pass to Dallas, who who then gave it to McNair, now at right back, who crossed with speed and accuracy into the six yard box for Magennis to divert the ball into the net.
Already assured of a play-off for the finals after winning their Nations League group, the Belarusians could have been forgiven for simply accepting defeat amid a brave effort.
But their substitute Pavel Nekhaychik made a major difference in the dying seconds when he played in Laptev, who needed to be repelled, and then Peacock-Farrell came up with that courageous save at feet of Nekhaychik when it seemed a second equaliser was inevitable.
After Northern Ireland had come away from the Nations League fruitless despite playing attractive and high tempo football, boss O’Neill stated prior to this campaign that he just wanted to win by any means possible.
It wasn’t pretty, but it was certainly effective with that dramatic late winner seeing Northern Ireland claim a maximum six points from their opening two games. Just as O’Neill had demanded.
N IRELAND: Peacock-Farrell, Dallas, Cathcart, J Evans, Lewis, McNair, Davis, Saville, McGinn (Magennis, 68 mins), Lafferty (Boyce, 79 mins), Jones (Ferguson, 85 mins). Unused subs: McGovern, McLaughlin, McAuley, Thompson, Flanagan, Hughes, Washington, Smyth, Hazard.
Belarus: Klimovich, Shitov (Polyakov, 73 mins), Sivakov, Martynovich, Valadzko, Maewski, Hleb (Putsila, 66 mins), Dragun, Savitskiy (Nekhaychik, 85 mins), Laptev, Stasevich. Unused subs: Chichkan, Rios, Kovalev, Saroka, Signevich, Kislyak, Kendysh, Volkov, Gorbunov.
Referee: Pawel Raczkowski (Poland)
Man of the match: Paddy McNair
Match rating: 7/10