Belfast Telegraph

O'Neill learns little as Qatar lesson fails to strike a high note

Northern Ireland 1-1 Qatar

By Julian Taylor

The Qatar lessons for Northern Ireland failed spectacularly to hit the right note in yesterday's 1-1 draw.

What was viewed by most as an early summer amble to boost fitness and game time for a number of players - many of whom hope to stake a real claim for international longevity - was skewed by the unknowns from the Gulf state.

Not that it matters in the final analysis, but still the Green and White Army wait for a first friendly victory since triumphing over Georgia in 2008.

And for most of this bland affair at Gresty Road, Crewe, it looked like a single goal from Stuart Dallas would answer that particular hex. But no. A superb shot by Karim Boudiaf claimed a morale-boosting draw for Qatar and Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill must have been quietly stunned in the process.

For all Northern Ireland's percentage of dominance, there was little excitement, little flair - and even less for their opponents.

Fortunately, the raft of key men who were missing last night will return, firstly for the behind-closed-doors friendly against the Republic of Ireland on Thursday and what is the tumultuous Euro 2016 qualifier at home to Romania on June 13.

This was one to forget, in truth. A fair degree of endeavour, yes, but O'Neill will have expected more. Much more.

It was, undoubtedly, a rather surreal environment for both teams, and not just because of the inconvenient timing of the fixture.

With Northern Ireland forced to look for an alternative to the under-construction Windsor Park and Qatar aiming to test themselves against British-style opponents whilst fostering wider coverage of their side, Crewe Alexandra was the choice of venue.

What the visitors thought of the earthy Gresty Road was anyone's guess. Their Uruguayan coach, Jose Daniel Carreno, and his players had been off limits to the media all week, as the Fifa corruption scandal raged, with Qatar due to host the World Cup in 2022.

Their elusiveness didn't go unnoticed by Northern Ireland fans, a number of whom displayed placards urging both Fifa and Qatar to 'play by the rules'.

As expected, a sparse crowd - notwithstanding the usual, hardy, travelling dragoons of the Green and White Army - was in attendance as O'Neill took a substantial look at players who had not played for several weeks at club level.

A number of regulars - Gareth McAuley, Steven Davis, Kyle Lafferty, Chris Baird and Chris Brunt - were all excused, while Aaron Hughes claimed the captain's armband. All this despite the IFA's pre-match statement that Jonny Evans was to lead the team in Davis' absence. The Manchester United defender had to settle for a place on the bench instead.

Indeed, it seemed the Qataris were not the only ones supplying a sense of mystery. There is arguably an Evans selection conundrum ahead of the massive tie against the Romanians.

O'Neill opted to give starting positions to Paddy McNair, Daniel Lafferty, Dallas, Will Grigg and Niall McGinn, although with Grigg the lone frontman and McNair in a midfield anchor role, you could say it was an experimental approach - such is the nature of these incongruous outings.

The Qatar players all currently ply their trade with domestic clubs but had already shown a level of shadowy threat, having beaten both Algeria and Slovenia in friendly action.

Unfortunately, the opening periods were characterised by complete listlessness and it failed to conjure up any notable opportunities until the 28th minute.

Northern Ireland were in an ascendency of sorts and fairly comfortable, especially McNair in his unfamiliar role. But it should be a matter of concern for O'Neill that it took so long for beanpole Qatar keeper Amine Lecomte to be tested, as he did well to turn away a looping Oliver Norwood effort.

Three minutes later, Norwood was involved once more, supplying an inviting cross with Grigg going close with a glancing header. Certainly, Grigg was willing, and Lecomte needed to smother the ball from the MK Dons forward.

As for the international men of mystery? The best you could possibly say is that they had a certain organisation about them. Al-Annabi (The Maroon) were as far from expansive, and Roy Carroll in the Northern Ireland goal was a bored figure.

Just when acute indifference was about to set in, Northern Ireland sparked into life - and Dallas was both in position and unmarked. The Brentford man latched onto a McGinn cross from the right-hand side and took a neat touch to control before blasting a left-foot shot home from close-range.

Dallas has impressed in his international outings so far and, after an eye-catching display against Scotland recently, he is one with significant potential for O'Neill. The goal lifted Northern Ireland's players, who were, frankly, coasting without much abrasiveness or intent.

Free agent Jamie Ward - linked with a move to Nottingham Forest - burst along the right flank, and Qatar defender Mohamed Musa was fortunate that his sliced attempt to clear Ward's dangerous cross didn't end up in his own net.

With just the single goal and a sense of complacency apparent, there is always a danger of a counter-attack, even from a team as negative as the Qataris.

And how they shocked Northern Ireland with a fine leveller in the 70th minute.

Without a single threat throughout to either Carroll or half-time replacement Michael McGovern, the Hamilton keeper was stunned to see a wonderful, curled 20-yard effort by Boudiaf fly past him into the top corner. The Maroons were afforded warm applause in the aftermath.

Lecomte made a smart save from a low McNair shot as Northern Ireland hustled, albeit with notes of growing frustration. Josh Magennis was thrown on for the United ace as possible embarrassment loomed.

How Northern Ireland managed to snatch a draw from the jaws of victory was the real puzzler. Thankfully, such a disjointed end-of-term display was saved for this forgettable encounter.

The crucial Windsor clash against Romania in a few weeks is when O'Neill really needs his key men back in business.

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