Belfast Telegraph

Slovakia prove too strong for Baraclough's young stars

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland Under-21s suffered their first defeat in the 2019 European Championship qualifying campaign last night, going down 1-0 to Slovakia.

Laszlo Benes scored the only goal of the game for the home side in Stadion FK Senica as Slovakia moved to top of the group.

Like Northern Ireland, who won their opening two games against Estonia and Albania, Slovakia have six points but with a better goal difference and a game in hand.

Ian Baraclough's men started brightly and should have taken the lead early on, only for QPR's new signing Paul Smyth to miss a chance after rounding the goalkeeper.

It was the type of opportunity he gobbled up during his time at Linfield but he blazed his effort off target having done all of the hard work.

From then on it was Slovakia who looked more likely to score, with Northern Ireland goalkeeper Conor Mitchell in fine form, making several excellent stops.

However, he could do nothing on 61 minutes when a low shot from Benes found the net. That was one of 17 efforts on goal Slovakia had in the 90 minutes - a sign of their dominance.

Baraclough made subs in an attempt to claw his side back into the game but it was to no avail as Slovakia ran out winners after Shea Gordon couldn't find the net from a Jordan Thompson cross.

The winners of the nine groups automatically go to the finals with the four best runners-up involved in the play-offs. Favourites in Northern Ireland's group, Spain, started their campaign last night with a 1-0 win in Estonia.

Belfast Telegraph

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