Belfast Telegraph

Whyte impresses again but Northern Ireland U21s draw a blank against Iceland

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland U21s scored three times against the young Spanish superstars in waiting from La Liga last week. Ian Baraclough's men could have scored twice as many against Iceland last night but in the end had to settle for a scoreless draw.

The chances for the home side came thick and fast in the European Championship qualifier in front of 1,100 spectators at the Coleraine Showgrounds, but unlike at Portadown four days ago Baraclough's young side couldn't find the net.

There was much to admire once again from the Northern Ireland kids with Rangers midfielder Jordan Thompson standing out alongside Crusaders winger Gavin Whyte, who has made such a positive impression in the double-header of internationals.

The result leaves Northern Ireland's hopes of qualification for next year's finals hanging by a thread. Spain will win the group and go to Italy automatically while Baraclough's boys, in second, have to finish as one of the top four runners-up across nine groups to reach a play-off.

They have three games left (including one in Spain) and may need to win them all to do it, but even if they don't it's evident real progress is being made at this level.

Last night the Under-21 side were without one of their star players - Paul Smyth, who was suspended.

What the QPR winger did on Saturday at Windsor Park - scoring a sensational late winner against South Korea after coming on for his senior international debut - was a big pre-match boost to his young team-mates, who were delighted to see him shine.

Baraclough was able to call on the other two front men who made life so difficult for the Spanish, Crusaders winger Whyte and Everton striker Shayne Lavery, an unused substitute for Michael O'Neill's team at Windsor at the weekend.

There was a deserved Under-21 debut for Glenavon's Bobby Burns while Leeds goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell also made his bow at this level.

It was a lively opening at the Showgrounds with Peacock-Farrell denying Mikael Anderson early on before at the other end the home side went close twice in the space of 60 seconds.

First Thompson cleverly played a short corner to Jamie McDonagh on the edge of the box and his drive was pushed away by Iceland goalkeeper Sindri Olafsson before Ben Kennedy headed wide from close range after Dale Gorman delivered a dangerous cross.

Gorman was on the pitch where his dad Tony served Coleraine so well.

Northern Ireland were the superior side in the first half but they would have been disappointed to go into the break scoreless with Whyte in particular unfortunate not to find the net.

On 29 minutes the influential Thompson provided a pass for Whyte to rush onto with the Seaview star quick enough to round the Iceland goalkeeper only for his shot on goal to lack power and be cleared by the visiting defence.

Whyte was becoming a magnet for the ball and a danger for the Icelandic rearguard. Olafsson denied the 22-year-old before the Crusaders man couldn't connect with a cross from Kennedy after Burns had started the move.

In the second half, Whyte was at it again. A brilliant individual piece of skill on 50 minutes was followed by a quick-fire shot which was well saved.

Northern Ireland were pressing for what would have been a deserved opening goal. Thompson's set-pieces were bang on the money, creating havoc in the opposition box.

Ryan Johnson had a shot cleared off the line before Lavery and Kennedy headed off target when perhaps they could have broken the deadlock.

At the other end, Tryggvi Hrafn Haraldson should have won it for the away side on 65 minutes but with the goal at his mercy he struck wide, much to the relief of the Northern Ireland support.

Baraclough's side searched for a decisive strike in the closing minutes. It just wasn't meant to be.

N IRELAND: Peacock-Farrell, Donnelly, Johnson, Whyte, Gorman, Kennedy (Sykes 84), Thompson, Hall, Lavery, McDonagh, Burns. Subs not used: Mitchell, McDermott, Harkin, McGonigle, Parkhouse, Holden.

ICELAND: Olafsson, F Fridriksson, Guomundsson, Sampsted, Friojonsson, Magnusson, Haraldsson, Guomundsson, Karlsson (Ljubicic 78), Anderson (Tryggvason 87), Gunnarssson. Subs not used: A Fridriksson, Brynjarsson, Stefansson, G Gunnarsson, Astorsson.

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