Belfast Telegraph

World Cup 2018

Fixtures & Results

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Northern Ireland's lack of quality up top is a problem for O'Neill

By Paul Ferguson

Disappointed Michael O'Neill lamented his side conceding two goals from set pieces yesterday as Costa Rica cruised to a comfortable 3-0 victory in Northern Ireland's final match of their 10 day tour of Central America.

Northern Ireland pride themselves on their strength from corners and free kicks but O'Neill's defence was badly caught out as Johan Venegas nodded in on 30 minutes to score Costa Rica's opening goal and then substitute Francisco Calvo powered home Los Tico's third on 66 minutes to seal the game.

The men in green usually practice their set pieces on the morning of the game but due to yesterday's match starting at at the unusual time of 11am meant they were unable to do so. The fact the match was played in temperatures pushing 30 degrees also seemed to affect the men in green.

"The first one (goal) was disappointing, I think Jonny (Evans) gets blocked and then someone loses their marker at the back post," sighed O'Neill, who will now look ahead to the start of the Nations League in September against Bosnia.

"It's out of character for us to lose goals of that nature. The third goal for them is a good header, although he gets a run on us - sometimes it happens.

"I think one of the key things with fatigue is the focus of the players and maybe that's reflected in the set pieces. The early kick-off was difficult, you can see it in the body language of some of the players. There was a lethargy there in a few of them, they couldn't get to the pace of the game earlier enough in the game. It was difficult for them. To lose the second goal in the nature we did, so soon after half time, is disappointing because it's a mountain then for us."

With Liam Boyce and Josh Magennis playing as a front two again, O'Neill was looking a much improved attacking performance from Panama, but Northern Ireland - who have scored in just one of their last six outings - barely had a shot on target.

Boyce was clattered into during the first half and had to be replaced by Bradford's Shay McCartan. Due to the fact the game also turned into a damage limitation exercise, he was unable to bring on young guns Paul Smyth, Gavin Whyte or Shayne Lavery.

Kyle Lafferty, Conor Washington and Jamie Ward will all return in the autumn, but the forward line is a concern for O'Neill as he is acutely aware he doesn't have a striker in England's Premier League.

"We were poor in the attacking area of the pitch," conceded O'Neill.

"People who played there will have to look and say, 'Could we have done better in the game'. We watched the game back against Panama and there were times we could have done better and today was no different.

"We're under no illusions. We do not have attacking players that play at the highest level of the game - in the Premier League, or a top five leagues in Europe."

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Our coverage of Northern Ireland's tour to play Panama and Costa Rica is brought to you in conjunction with BetMcLean.

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