Belfast Telegraph

Relegation is not a national disaster: Michael O'Neill 'not concerned' with UEFA Nations League as Northern Ireland suffer second defeat

By Gareth Hanna

According to Jurgen Klopp, it's the 'most senseless competition in the world' and Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill doesn't seem overly caught up with the UEFA Nations League either.

That may be somewhat down to the fact his side have now lost their opening two games in the inaugral season of the competition, but it also emphasises the manager's priority; the upcoming Euro 2020 qualifiers.

O'Neill once again used the Nations League to give game-time to fledgling duo Jamal Lewis and Bailey Peacock-Farrell while he also continued to blood Paddy McNair as a right-back.

It was the Middlesbrough man who watched Marko Arnautovic ghost in behind him to slot home the only goal of the game as Austria won 1-0 in Vienna on Friday evening.

But his manager was far more interested in the development of his side than their potential relegation from League B.

"I'm not really concerned about this group, to be honest," he said.

"What's the significance of relegation in this competition? It means we play in League C when it comes around again in two years. That's not really our concern to be honest.

"Much has been written about the level of resource we have. If we are relegated from Group B it's not a national disaster for us. There are good teams in League C and we'll go and play against other countries in two years' time. Qualification, if that is to happen, it will have to come through direct qualification for Euro 2020."

"We look at this competition and we want to do as well as we can but we want to develop the team as well.

"We have young players out their like Jamal Lewis and Bailey (Peacock-Farrell). They're both U21 players. We're trying to develop the team and bring new players in. We'll not get too hung up on where we are. We get hung up on the level of performance.

"I thought tonight was a good test for the players, the likes of George Saville, Jamal, Paddy McNair, who have not played a lot of international football away from home against teams of this calibre. These are the places you're going to have to come and try to get points if you're going to qualify for Euro 2020."

O'Neill also questioned referee Georgi Kabakov's decisions, but admitted he might be looking at things with green and white tinted glasses.

"I thought the referee didn't do us any particular favours on the foul count, some of the things he gave," he said.

"I just thought sometimes the balance of the free-kicks - maybe you're a bit biased when you're in the dugout. I felt, particularly early in the first half, we didn't seem to get anything. A lot of the challenges were neither one side or the other but he dropped on the side of the Austrian team. Sometimes you get that as the home side but I did think he disrupted the game somewhat.

"We had to dig very deep in the first half. It took us 20 minutes to get to grips with the game but I thought we did that after a while. Ultimately we had the better chances to go ahead, we didn't take them and we were punished. It's a poor goal for us to lose. We lost two tackles in the middle of the pitch and Arnautovic gets played in. He's got a bit of quality and it's a good finish.

"We hit the post after that so we feel a bit aggrieved. We've played better but we knew this would be a tough game. We didn't win enough second ball. It's a physical game and Austria are a physical team.

"We had to compete and possibly in the middle of the pitch, we didn't compete as well as we could have. That was down to the sheer size of the Austrian players as well.

"We're disappointed to lose and we feel a bit aggrieved that we didn't take something from the game."

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