Belfast Telegraph

Michael O'Neill hails Northern Ireland players' character after Israel test

Michael O'Neill praised the character of his men after they finished a frustrating World Cup qualifying campaign on a positive note.

O'Neill and his players were stung by the criticism they received after the disastrous 2-0 defeat in Azerbaijan and the pressure was on to salvage some pride following a poor showing in Group F.

The 1-1 draw in Tel Aviv ensures Northern Ireland finish in fifth spot and the visitors had to fight back from a goal down.

Eden Ben Basat gave Israel the lead on 43 minutes but captain Steven Davis produced a sublime finish in the 72nd minute to allow O'Neill's men to draw some comfort from a turbulent campaign.

"Israel were very good in the first half and pinned us back and we struggled to get out," said O'Neill.

"In the second half we showed good character. I said to the players before the game that whatever happened they could not let anyone question their character at the end and I think they produced a performance.

"It was a positive moment at the end of a few negative times but we have to look back on the group as a whole and know we could have done better than we did.

"It was a good result – let's be honest. This is a difficult place to come to – only Russia have won here in the group.

"I felt we played extremely well in the second half. We changed the shape of the team after an hour.

"We were without Aaron Hughes, Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley and Oliver Norwood but the players who came in were excellent.

"(Rory) McArdle did a great job, (Chris) Baird and (Sammy) Clingan were excellent in the middle of the park and we just managed the game well. Israel came and stole a win in Belfast so it would have been nice to steal one back here but it wasn't to be."

Skipper Steven Davis has come in for criticism from some Northern Ireland fans but the Southampton midfielder produced a classy display, capped off with a wonderful strike.

O'Neill added: "If you wanted to criticise Steven you could only say he doesn't chip in with enough goals," O'Neill added.

"His quality of play is excellent, we tried to play him a bit higher up today even though I think he's suited to lying slightly deeper if I'm honest.

"It was a good piece of play and a good goal. I'm delighted for Steven – it was a great finish.

"It's difficult to be a manager when not winning games but it's also not easy being captain either and he's handled that very well."

With Evans and McAuley suspended, Lee Hodson, Rory McArdle, Craig Cathcart and Daniel Lafferty formed the back four.

Northern Ireland defended well with Cathcart making a few crucial interventions.

"Craig did well," said O'Neill. "He's played excellent for me whenever I've needed him in the campaign. I felt we were poor for the goal if I'm honest, Ben Basat got between the two centre-backs and there was a little naivety from our point.

"But from then on the back four were excellent. Lee did fantastically when we moved him to wing back, Daniel was coming in despite not playing regularly for Burnley. We're asking some people to do a lot when they're not at their maximum for their clubs."

Attention will quickly switch to O'Neill's contract situation and whether he can thrash out a new deal with the IFA who remain keen that he stays at the helm.

"We'll deal with that when it comes along," he added. "The bottom line is this group of players is developing. Probably 60% of the squad are in their first real campaign and having their first real experiences of playing in these kind of venues and playing for what is at stake. We can only be better as a group for that."

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph