Belfast Telegraph

Seven questions raised by Northern Ireland's tour to Panama and Costa Rica

Warm applause: Gareth McAuley leads the way as Northern Ireland thank fans for their support amid soaring temperatures in Costa Rica
Warm applause: Gareth McAuley leads the way as Northern Ireland thank fans for their support amid soaring temperatures in Costa Rica

By Paul Ferguson in Central America

Northern Ireland finished their two game tour of Central America without a goal against Panama and Costa Rica.

Michael O'Neill, due to at least 10 regular players unavailable, was forced to mix experience with a number of rookies in the 0-0 draw with Panama and 3-0 defeat in Costa Rica.

Paul Ferguson was at both matches with the Northern Ireland team and brings us some of the big questions raised by the two-game tour:

1. Who's going to become Northern Ireland's number one?

A year ago Michael O'Neill was deeply concerned about the goalkeeping talent coming through to challenge Michael McGovern.

But now, he is spoilt for choice.

On the Central American tour, two young goalkeepers made their debuts and Motherwell's Trevor Carson staked his claim for the No.1 spot ahead of McGovern.

Bailey Peacock-Farrell, who was in fine form for Leeds United in the Championship towards the end of the season, played a full half against Panama, while Downpatrick born Conor Hazard, a hot prospect at Celtic, was given 18 minutes towards the end of the Costa Rica defeat.

Bailey Peacock-Farrell in goal during his senior NI debut against Panama

Both young goalkeepers are over 6ft 4incs and Peacock-Farrell in particular has commanding presence of his 18 yard box.

Hazard was on loan to Falkirk last season but is hoping to make the breakthrough at Parkhead under Carnlough man Brendan Rodgers. Peacock-Farrell was a favourite of Paul Heckingbottom but with him out at Elland Road, it will be interesting to see if the Englishman is given a chance to impress again in the first team by the new boss.

With McGovern coming back in September, four into three goalkeepers does not go, so O'Neill will have to decide who to leave out.

2. Who will get Northern Ireland's goals going forward?

He'd hoped Josh Magennis and Liam Boyce would create a spark in attack during the matches against Panama and Costa Rica – but they failed to fire.

A lack of service didn't help the duo but apart from a few nice touches they will both be disappointed with their performances and Magennis admitted after the Costa Rica match that his hold up play could have been much better.

In September, O'Neill can bring back Kyle Lafferty, Conor Washington and Jamie Ward but he needs a consistent goalscorer. It appears Wigan's Will Grigg will not return to the international fold, so Northern Ireland need to unearth a striker or hope that Lafferty's form for the Euro 2016 qualifiers returns.

Everton's Shayne Lavery really impressed his team-mates during training but he needs to get out on loan to a Championship or League One side to give himself valuable first team experience. He is as strong as an ox and showed nice skills.

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Shayne Lavery made his senior Northern Ireland debut in Panama.

3. Are Michael O'Neill's side too reliant on senior players?

While it was great to see the introduction of the young guns into the Northern Ireland squad, it also exposed the fact the men in green are so reliant on their aging stars.

Defenders Gareth McAuley and Aaron Hughes, both six months past their 38th birthdays, played every minute in the heat of Panama City and San Jose, outperforming some of their experienced team-mates.

Jonny Evans did a decent job as a makeshift midfielder but you could tell he would have preferred to move back into the defence where he is comfortable. Captain Steven Davis was badly missed in the middle of park. Provided he is injury free, Davis will return for the Nations League games in September and Northern Ireland will once again depend heavily on the Southampton ace. But Davis is 33 and while George Saville and Paddy McNair are the future in midfield, influential Davis will still be the man that makes Northern Ireland tick.

West Brom's Chris Brunt is still deciding whether he wants to make an international return. Even at 33 years of age and with Norwich's Jamal Lewis set to come into contention again, O'Neill still needs Brunt and his invaluable experience.

Jonny Evans became Northern Ireland's man in the middle

4. Can any of Northern Ireland's next crop become Premier League stars?

With Gareth McAuley and Chris Brunt dropping out of the Premier League, Northern Ireland desperately need players to fill their void in the top flight. It's vital Michael O'Neill has players performing in the world's top league.

Defender Jonny Evans, ready to implement his £3 million relegation release clause now West Brom have sunk into the Championship, should find a Premier League side soon while Sunderland can't continue to keep hold of Paddy McNair with interest from Brighton and a London club.

Paddy was the best midfielder on show against Panama but like most of his team-mates, he struggled to impose himself on the game in San Jose.

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Paddy McNair was Northern Ireland's stand-out player against Panama.

Thankfully for Steven Davis, his Southampton team avoided the drop but how will new Saints chief Mark Hughes view his midfield master from Cullybackey?

Craig Cathcart is looking forward to an injury free season with Watford and Ollie Norwood, contracted to Brighton, may sign for Fulham but the midfielder was largely used from the bench last season in the Championship so it remains to be seen how he would fit into their plans in the Premier League.

5. Can Northern Ireland stand the heat?

On the eve of the first match in Panama, a local was watching Northern Ireland train at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez when he pointed out – the weather is our best player.

So it proved, not just in Panama but Costa Rica too with temperatures over 30 degrees and the humidity in Panama City stifling.

The Northern Ireland players are incredibly fit but that just about got them through the game.

When lap tops are overheating in the media rows at the Estadio Nacional, San Jose and some of the photographers pitch side are suffering from heatstroke, it is ridiculously hot.

The players couldn't perform their natural quick paced game, using all their energy to close players down while their opponents were obviously accustomed to playing in the extreme heat.

Costa Rica played the game at 11am to avoid the violent showers which usually occur during the afternoon in San Jose during the rainy season. But the Northern Ireland players would have much prefered the heavens opening up on them rather than the glaring sun on their backs.

Maybe it would have proved a much more even playing field.

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Water break: Aaron Hughes keeps himself hydrated in a bid to conquer the sweltering heat in Costa Rica

6. Was it worth it?

Michael O'Neill certainly thinks going to Central America with a heavily depleted squad was a worthwhile exercise.

The alternative, he said after defeat on Sunday to Costa Rica, was to play a non-descript team at Windsor Park and not learn anything about his team.

O'Neill had a week's training with the six under-21 players in his squad and got to see them up close and personal which will give him a good idea about their personalities and what they offer his squad. Also the week of bonding between experienced pros and the rookies will hold Northern Ireland in good stead.

While it must have been bitterly disappointing for those fans who spent thousands on getting to Central America to watch their team, the bigger picture suggests Northern Ireland have a bright future – provided those young players can make the breakthrough and be consistent at their clubs.

Proud moment: Conor Hazard earned his first cap for NI

7. How will Panama and Costa Rica fare?

Panama should go and enjoy the experience in their first World Cup experience while Costa Rica have a chance of securing second place behind Brazil in their group.

The Panamanians should pose no problems for England or Belgium while Tunisia will be looking at their game with the Los Canaleros to get a much needed win.

Discipline will be key if Panama are going to make any impact at the World Cup. Against Northern Ireland they were extremely fortunate not to have any players booked or even sent off and they will not receive such leniency in Russia. Also, expect teams to exploit their lack of discipline.

Panama were given a great send-off by their fans as they jet off to the World Cup.

Costa Rica are in a really tough group. Their first match against Serbia is a huge game – win that match and the momentum for the right to finish second behind Brazil is with Los Ticos. Switzerland  have a number of quality players who could punish Costa Rica but the Central Americans really play well as a team and of course have three time Champions League winning goalkeeper Keilor Navas between the posts. Northern Ireland never really threatened Costa Rica's goal so we are unsure how stubborn their defence is. Costa Rica's results over the last 18 months have been inconsistent but they always seem to step it up for the World Cup.

Panama will finish bottom of their group while Costa Rica have a chance of making it through to the knock-out stages.

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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