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Northern Ireland 0-3 Croatia: Reshuffled pack fails to make its mark for boss O'Neill

By Paul Ferguson

The 10-game home unbeaten record has been broken, Northern Ireland suffered their heaviest defeat in four years and they conceded a goal at Windsor Park for the first time in 463 minutes. Frankly though, who cares?

In the great scheme of international football in 2016, this result is an irrelevance.

There were no World Cup qualifying points at stake and Northern Ireland lying second in Group C are very much in the mix to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

This was not like Holland four years ago when Northern Ireland were thrashed 6-0 in only Michael O'Neill's second game in charge - this was all about rewarding those players who had travelled all over Europe and maybe hadn't enjoyed much game time.

The unbeaten record which stretched back to a 4-2 defeat by Portugal in 2014 was a nice statistic, but the fringe players and O'Neill will have learnt more than if he'd just gone with a tried and tested formula.

Boss O'Neill reshuffled his pack with Rochdale's Matthew Lund making his debut in midfield alongside Paddy McNair. Goalkeeper Alan Mannus, forever the bridesmaid in the Northern Ireland camp, started his first international since March 2014 against Cyprus, former Cliftonville striker Liam Boyce, now at Ross County, led the line in place of Windsor favourite Kyle Lafferty while Niall McGinn kept with tradition by captaining his country on his 50th appearance for his country.

Regular skipper Steven Davis was given a rest as in total in total O'Neill made six changes from the side that hammered Azerbaijan on Friday night, but kept experience at the back with West Brom trio Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans and Chris Brunt joined by Rangers full back Lee Hodson, who took over from Conor McLaughlin, so impressive last Friday night.

Croatia did not travel with five big hitters including Real Madrid duo Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic and Barcelona's Ivan Rakitic but their main striker Mario Mandzukic did start and captained their side.

Once the action - delayed by 15 minutes due to traffic congestion around the international arena - eventually commenced, Croatia were full of flicks, tricks and nice touches in the opening minutes with Tin Jedvaj, Duje Cop and Andrej Kramaric keen to have their own backheel competition as they attacked Northern Ireland's goal.

The hosts, just like on Friday night, were using Magennis's power and speed down the right to set up attacks while McNair and Lund were pushing forward. Magennis' long throws were once again a major asset. Boyce was making a nuisance of himself leading the line and Evans was constantly trying to flick the ball on from set plays

Northern Ireland hadn't conceded a goal at Windsor Park since Greece 13 months ago, but it took Croatia just nine minutes to break that bubble.

Kramaruc played a delighted defence splitting ball through to Cop who hit a first-time shot across goal, Mannus made the initial save put couldn't hold it and Mandzukic managed to bundle it in at the second attempt.

This goal put the Juventus superstar level with Eduardo da Silva as Croatia's second highest ever goalscorer on 29 - behind the great Davor Suker.

Northern Ireland were playing neat football but with very little in return. McGinn wasn't having much joy down the left but Boyce was chasing every lost cause - a totally committed effort.

Northern Ireland have become renowned for scoring from set plays so will have been bitterly disappointed to lose their second goal to a corner kick. Mitrovic raced to meet Kramaric's corner and headed it brilliantly across the face of goal where Cop, in front of the Kop, poked it in.

In the 40th minute, Croatian fans who had managed to secure tickets in the far end of the Kop unfurled a banner which read 'Never Forget Vukovar' - referring to a massacre during the War of Independence in 1991. Police and stewards moved in quickly but it took a few moments for the disturbance to be quelled.

O'Neill made three changes at the interval with Davis replacing Lund, Ryan McGivern coming on for Brunt and McLaughlin taking the place of McAuley.

Davis brought a new dimension to Northern Ireland's play - his passing, ability to keep possession and incredible football brain made the men in green far more of an attacking threat.

There was an unusual situation on 52 minutes when Croatia had a free kick inside Northern Ireland's 18 yard box. Mannus was adjudged to have picked up a Hodson pass back and, after a short delay, Marin Leovac played it to Brozovic who nearly blasted in his wayward effort over the Railway Stand.

Lafferty was brought on for Magennis with 35 minutes to go and, six minutes later, McGinn handed the armband back to Davis as he made way for St Johnstone's Paul Paton.

Jonny Evans was unlucky not to score his second international goal when he met the ball powerfully from a Norwood corner but it just sailed over the ball.

Then, a moment of magic from Hoffenheim's Kramaric - after McLaughlin had lost possession on the touchline. Cop laid the ball on for him 30 yards out and Kramaric sent a bullet into the top right hand corner of Mannus' goal.

Will Grigg was immediately brought on for Boyce allowing the Green and White Army to regale us once again with the song of the summer. Lafferty tried to chip Lovre Kalinic on 71 minutes and when Cop fired a free kick wide from just outside the box, the game more or less came to a conclusion.

At the final whistle Bob Marley's Three Little Birds was played out over the PA system - but, as Northern Ireland head into 2017, they really don't have anything to worry about.

Everything is going to be alright - with Russia very much on the horizon.

N Ireland: Mannus, McAuley (McGivern, 46 mins), McNair, J Evans, Hodson, Brunt (McLaughlin, 46 mins), Lund (Davis, 46 mins), Magennis (K Lafferty, 56 mins), Norwood, Boyce (Grigg, 68 mins), McGinn (Paton, 62 mins). Unused subs: Carroll, C Evans, Duffy, Flanagan.

Croatia: Kalinic (Vargic, 82 mins), Jedvaj, Leovac, Vida (Vrsaljko, 60 mins), Mitrovic, Badelj (Brozovic, 51 mins), Bradaric, Rog (Pivaric, 87 mins), Cop, Kramaric, Mandzukic (Coric, 72 mins).

Referee: Mark Clattenburg (England)

Man of the match: Duje Cop

Match rating: 7/10

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