Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill pockets Euro 2016 bonus from fine show of strength

By Steven Beacom

Michael O'Neill feels his squad are hungry and in good shape as the Euro 2016 finals appear on the horizon.

The Northern Ireland boss was close to his first away friendly win as manager, but Wales had the final say at the Cardiff City Stadium.

Simon Church struck a late penalty to deny Northern a first victory over Wales since 1980.

Craig Cathcart's second goal in his last three international appearances had the travelling Green and White Army in fine voice and although the visitors couldn't finish the job, O'Neill concluded the contest was a more than useful exercise.

O'Neill said: "It would have been nice to win, but we were able to give 17 players some game time and experiment with a couple of different systems.

"We have very limited opportunities to look at systems, but the players adapted to both well. We were very disciplined in a lot of our play.

"In the first half we played with three at the back and there were positives in that, but equally things we need to work on.

"Having gone ahead it was disappointing not to win and to lose the goal in the nature that we did. I thought we looked comfortable. It's just the nature of the goal - I haven't seen the penalty back to see how significant the challenge was.

"I think we learned that we can play in that system.

"There are also things we need to work on with it as well."

Northern Ireland are now nine games unbeaten and O'Neill will be particularly pleased with the mature performance from Paddy McNair in midfield.

The Manchester United man was a brilliant shield as he sat in front of the three centre-backs, was involved in the goal and made a brilliant defensive header in front of Sam Vokes - was United boss Louis van Gaal watching.

Cathcart also won many more admirers and took his goal in the manner of an accomplished finisher.

Church, who had only been on the pitch 13 minutes, won a last-minute penalty when he was tripped by Gareth McAuley and he converted emphatically from the spot to secure a 1-1 draw.

For Northern Ireland, the goal looked like providing useful momentum towards Euro 2016, although they will take comfort from the fact that they have matched the record nine-game unbeaten run enjoyed by Billy Bingham's side 30 years ago.

Wales are unbeaten in eight internationals against Northern Ireland and now four of the last six meetings between these two sides have ended in draws.

Wales manager Chris Coleman, who was without Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, said: "There were lots of positives out of it - even if we'd come off and lost 1-0.

"They had a good mentality and attitude and I was happy with the players.

"We worked hard; we found it difficult to break Northern Ireland down - they were very well organised, strong and experienced.

"We got what we wanted out of it. We didn't lose, which was important because we were 1-0 down with five minutes to go.

"We got something out of the game. More importantly, for the stage we're at going into the tournament, one or two of the lads got a bit more experience, they got a taste of it and that just makes the group that we've got, the strength in depth, a little bit bigger going into the summer."

Belfast Telegraph


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