Belfast Telegraph

Rising La Liga stars given a scare by Northern Ireland's young stars

N Ireland U21 3 Spain U21 5

By Steven Beacom

Billed as the biggest Under-21 international for Northern Ireland in years, manager Ian Baraclough said if his team went down, they would go down fighting.

How right he was as his youngsters put in a superb performance against a classy Spanish outfit only to lose 5-3 at Shamrock Park in last night's European Championship qualifier.

Three times Northern Ireland came from behind with captain Liam Donnelly and Shayne Lavery scoring, but a second-half hat-trick from Real Madrid's Borja Mayoral, following on from Mikel Oyarzabal's double in the first period, finally saw off Baraclough's brave boys.

The home side may have started their qualifying campaign superbly but there was no doubt that they were underdogs in Portadown.

Bar the Bernabeu connection, the visitors were filled with potential future Spanish superstars from big clubs. In contrast, Northern Ireland's squad was largely made up of some of the lesser lights of English football, the Irish League and League of Ireland.

This was Hartlepool v Valencia, Oldham v Athletic Bilbao and Nuneaton v Villarreal, giving an indication into the task facing Baraclough's side.

Clearly the message was to get about the Spanish early with Rangers star Jordan Thompson, on loan at Livingston, booked on 48 seconds after fouling the highly rated Ceballos.

In truth, the caution was harsh on the Northern Ireland midfielder, as was a yellow card for Fabian Ruiz Pena minutes later after challenging Mark Sykes. Polish referee Bartosz Frankowski made an early impact - not a positive one.

The youngsters in green were matching their much vaunted opponents in the opening exchanges but one moment of class from Spanish captain and star of the future Dani Ceballos opening up the home defence led to Oyarzabal beginning the scoring on 14 minutes.

With the outside of his right foot, the Real Madrid playmaker delivered a wonderful pass into space behind a static rearguard and Real Sociedad's Oyarzabal was composed enough to score.

The Spanish would have doubled their lead but for a fine save from Conor Mitchell to deny Mayoral.

To their credit, Northern Ireland didn't fold with the much talked about Paul Smyth looking dangerous down the left flank. On the other wing, Gavin Whyte was trying to make his mark. He did just that on the half hour, winning a penalty when Merino needlessly felled the Crusaders winger in the box.

Up stepped skipper Donnelly to calmly stroke home the penalty.

The home fans loved that but were downcast on 44 minutes when Oyarzabal netted his second of the night, latching on to Mikel Merino's pass to finish with aplomb.

It was a crushing blow for Northern Ireland but, again, their character was evident in first-half injury-time when a deep free-kick from the impressive Thompson found Donnelly who controlled a shot goalward in a crowded area. Lavery was on the line with a final touch. Both players claimed it. The most important factor was that Baraclough's men had equalised again.

Two minutes after the break, Northern Ireland were caught by a touch of Spanish style. Carlos Soler's run and cross from the right flank was beautifully flicked into the net by Mayoral. It was a stunning piece of skill by a classy footballer.

But Baraclough's side were far from finished. Superb play from Glenavon's Sykes led to Lavery producing a thumping finish on 68 minutes to make it 3-3.

Could Northern Ireland go on and claim a famous victory which would put them top of the group and looking strong for a place in next year's finals?

Unfortunately not.

The Spanish upped the ante with Mayoral scoring twice, first on 75 and then with five minutes left. Finally the game was up for Northern Ireland.

But, boy, did they deserving the standing ovation at the end from a crowd of over 2,300.

Next up they host Iceland on Monday in Coleraine. Play like this and they will have every chance of victory.

N IRELAND: Mitchell, Dummigan, McDermott, Donnelly, Johnson, Smyth, Whyte, Thompson, Sykes, Hall, Lavery. Subs: Peacock-Farrell, Kennedy (Whyte, 72 mins), Doherty, Paul (Dummigan, 46 mins), McGonigle, McDonagh (Lavery, 84 mis), McClean.

SPAIN: Sivera, Nunez, Martin, Mere, Pena, Merino, Soler, Fornals, Mayoral, Ceballos, Oyarzabal. Subs: Simon, Maffeo, Vallejo, Lato, Garcia, Traore (Fornals, 76 mins), Fernandez.

Referee: Bartosz Frankowski (Poland)

Man of the match: Borja Mayoral

Match rating: 9/10

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