Belfast Telegraph

Steven Beacom: It's the hope that kills you but Holland hurt shows how far Northern Ireland have come under Michael O'Neill

 

First blood: Josh Magennis heads Northern Ireland in front but a famous win was ripped from their grasp
First blood: Josh Magennis heads Northern Ireland in front but a famous win was ripped from their grasp

By Steven Beacom

Cruel. Football can hurt and often it's the hope that kills you. When Josh Magennis headed Michael O'Neill's side in front against Holland on 75 minutes Northern Ireland were on course for one of the greatest results in the nation's history.

Even entering injury time with the score at 1-1 courtesy of a smart finish from Memphis Depay it would have been a fantastic outcome for the visitors, setting up a winner takes all Euro 2020 qualifying showdown with the Dutch at Windsor Park next month.

Then came the 91st and 94th minutes. Tired limbs and tired minds led to lapses in the visiting defence and goals for Luke de Jong and Depay goals meaning jubilation for the Netherlands and heartbreak for Northern Ireland.

This one will be extremely tough to take for O'Neill, who did a job on the Dutch.

Ronald Koeman's side came into last night's Group C encounter on a high. They had beaten fierce rivals Germany 4-2 in Hamburg and followed that up with a thumping 4-0 success in Estonia.

We were told Holland were back after missing out on the last two major tournaments. The Orange men were on the march.

Yet for the majority of the Rotterdam showdown they were flat with O'Neill's tactics working a treat as the Dutch were slowed down to a snail's pace at times and dire going forward rather than dynamic.

Perhaps it's a sign that they truly are the real deal snatching victory from embarrassment in the dying moments when they had not performed well, but that will be no consolation to O'Neill and his Northern Ireland players.

They were gutted last month when Germany beat them at Windsor Park, seeing it as an opportunity missed. Same again here. O'Neill's team have created miracles in the past but qualifying from the group now looks beyond them. The only hope now appears to be the play-offs.

It could have all been different but for those goals in stoppage time.

Last night Holland kicked off as overwhelming favourites. The personnel on each side was ample evidence of that.

Corry Evans finds it difficult making the Blackburn Rovers team. The same goes for George Saville at Middlesbrough. Michael Smith is with struggling Hearts side. Kyle Lafferty is involved in a relegation battle in Norway with his latest club Sarpsborg. Jordan Thompson and Tom Flanagan play in League One with Blackpool and Sunderland.

All played for the visitors.

Compare that to Liverpool's Champions League winners Virgil van Dijk and Georginio Wijnaldum, Barcelona's bright young thing Frenkie de Jong, highly rated Juventus defender Matthijs de Ligt and Lyon's reborn striker Depay.

Class all over the pitch with Van Dijk bigger and better than anyone else.

He is the best defender on the planet right now. O'Neill voted him number one at FIFA's Best Player awards last month.

With his power, pace and ability to read the game he has helped Liverpool become European champions and contenders for the Premier League title.

The thing is, Northern Ireland have two outstanding centre-backs of their own.

Brilliant organisers Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart are a magnificent partnership at the heart of defence and kept Holland quiet for most of the match, with everyone else maintaining their shape and discipline.

Paddy McNair, Michael Smith, Shane Ferguson, Corry Evans, Stuart Dallas and skipper Steven Davis worked themselves silly. Then came that magical Magennis moment 15 minutes from time, nodding in a brilliant Dallas cross.

The 3,500 Northern Ireland fans were in dreamland.

Unfortunately, a nightmare finish was on the way.

In June 2012 in Michael O'Neill's second match in charge Northern Ireland were hammered 6-0 in Holland in a friendly.

This loss hurt much, much more.

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