Belfast Telegraph

When it's your night, it's your night says Donnelly after U21s shock Spain

Spain U21 1 N Ireland U21 2

By Adam McKendry

Northern Ireland Under-21s match-winner Liam Donnelly was lost for words to describe his side's incredible 2-1 win over Spain in Albacete.

Donnelly netted an eighth minute penalty after Shayne Lavery had given Northern Ireland the lead, and an outstanding rearguard effort saw the visitors hold out for the remaining 82 minutes for an historic win.

The result significantly boosts Northern Ireland's Euro 2019 qualification hopes, with their play-off destiny now firmly in their own hands.

With their final two qualifiers next month away to Iceland and home to Slovakia - who are a point ahead of them in the group - Ian Baraclough and his side know that they can secure second place in the group with two wins and set up a play-off to qualify for the finals.

And captain Donnelly was found lacking when it came to summing up how he felt after their best result of the group stages thus far.

"I really don't know how to describe it," said an incredulous Donnelly, who was making a record 22nd appearance for the Under-21 side.

"To be 2-0 up after only eight minutes in Spain was unreal, but to see Conor Hazard save a penalty before half-time and then go on to win is incredible.

"We had to defend for our lives for the entire second half but when it's your night, it's your night.

"When the board went up for seven added minutes, you always start to worry but we deserved the win.

"It was an incredible night for everyone but if I'm being honest, we were actually disappointed at half-time even though we were 2-0 up.

"Out of all the games we've played in this group, that is the worst we'd played.

"Trying to keep the ball against a side like that was always going to be tough but we stuck to our task and did the job. And it's bizarre both Shayne and I scored in the home game too.

"I suppose it is a good sign if you are playing badly and beating Spain in Spain!"

The hosts had already secured a place in next summer's finals with seven straight wins and were looking to complete the qualifying group in style by going 10 from 10 and dominating the qualifiers.

Indeed, the Spaniards came into the game having only conceded six goals in the group to that point, three of which were against Northern Ireland in the reverse fixture.

But it was the visitors, who beat Luxembourg 1-0 in a friendly on Thursday, who got off to a flying start through Everton forward Lavery after just four minutes.

Northern Ireland then doubled their lead after Paul Smyth had been brought down in the penalty area by Francis Guerrero.

Motherwell defender Donnelly, so reliable from 12 yards, made no mistake from the spot, slotting into the bottom corner.

Spain could have reduced the deficit just before half-time when Ryan Johnson fouled Borja Mayoral.

Hazard, though, guessed correctly, making a fine save down to his right to deny the young Real Madrid forward, who is on a season-long loan at Levante.

Mayoral was thwarted by Hazard again early in the second half and the Northern Ireland keeper remained busy.

Spain, though, could only find a way through in stoppage time when Mir was set up by Mayoral as Baraclough's men closed out a fine result.

By the end, Northern Ireland had faced 43 shots from the Spaniards, 18 of which were manfully blocked by players putting their bodies on the line.

In stark contrast, they only had three of their own, all of which were on target and which, crucially, proved sufficient to take the points.

Donnelly added: "We had to win to keep our chances of qualification alive. I'm pretty sure a draw would have meant we'd no chance.

"We probably have to win both the next games to have a chance but we'll enjoy tonight first."

SPAIN U21: Sivera, Guerrero, Nunez, Mere, Pedraza; Roca, Ruiz (Mir, 50 mins), Carlos Soler (Cheikh, 77 mins), Fornals (Mendez, 68 mins), Oyarzabal; Borja Mayoral.

Unused subs: Soriano, Maffeo, Firpo, Zubeldia.

NORTHERN IRELAND U21: Hazard, Donnelly, Ballard, Johnson, McDonagh, Dunwoody (Gorman, 74 mins), Holden (Bird, 78 mins), Sykes, Burns; Lavery (McGonigle, 61 mins), Smyth. Unused subs: Mitchell, Kerr, Roy, McClean.

Referee: Jonathan Lardot (Belgium)

Man of the Match: Liam Donnelly (Northern Ireland)

Match Rating: 8/10

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