Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland's amazing World Cup journey continues even after Oslo loss

Norway 1 N Ireland 0

By Paul Ferguson

Northern Ireland are just 180 minutes away from Russia. The dream of reaching the 2018 World Cup finals is on.

It mattered little that Michael O'Neill's men lost 1-0 to Norway in their final qualifying campaign - a second defeat in four days.

A place in the play-offs has been officially confirmed and Northern Ireland will be one of the eight teams in the two-legged clashes next month. Who they play will be decided at a draw in Zurich on Tuesday-week, but it's unlikely they will be seeded although that could depend on results elsewhere in Europe over the next two days.

Importantly, Northern Ireland will also have no players suspended for the first leg of the play-off as all six who were carrying a yellow card into last night's game - Steven Davis, Corry and Jonny Evans, Ollie Norwood, Stuart Dallas and Josh Magennis - came through unscathed.

With second place in Group C already assured, Michael O'Neill's men found out 52 minutes before kick-off at the Ullevaal Stadion that their play-off spot was likewise secured after Scotland could only draw with Slovenia in Ljubljana.

When they took to the pitch for their warm-up, the players received a huge cheer from the Northern Ireland supporters who had arrived early at the stadium.

O'Neill, opting for his favoured 4-3-3, made two changes from the side that lost to Germany last Thursday night - Conor Washington replacing Kyle Lafferty while Lee Hodson dropped to the bench with Stuart Dallas returning to the starting XI to win his 26th cap.

Norway were without their talisman Bournemouth striker Josh King, but Fulham midfielder Stefan Johansen, the former Celtic star, overcame his injury to start in midfield, although regular keeper Rune Jarstein - who was set to win his 50th cap - was on the bench with Orjan Nyland taking his place between the posts.

With the hosts have nothing to play for and Northern Ireland being careful with those six key players on yellow cards, the game was a mundane affair for the majority of the first half.

The visiting defence, which has proved to be so resolute during this campaign with seven clean sheets, were restricting the Norwegians to long range efforts and, when they did manage to advance into the box, Gareth McAuley and Chris Brunt were well positioned to block shots and make the decisive headers.

Josh Magennis, on the right of an attacking three, showed some nice touches, pace and power, Washington was chasing all the lost causes with little in return, Corry Evans was disrupting Norwegian play while Norwood was attempting to give fresh impetus to the game with his range of passing.

It was after a Norwood long range effort on 31 minutes, which failed to hit the target, when the game actually flickered into life for a brief spell.

It gave the fans in the half empty stadium something to cheer about - although the 2,000 Green White Army fans who had occupied the stand behind Michael McGovern's goal had tried to raise the atmosphere from the start with their usual passionate approach.

Davis had to make an intervention on the byline on 35 minutes with Mohamed Elyounoussi seeking out a dangerous cross and, from the resulting corner, McAuley's header fell to left back Birger Meling, who struck a shot from 35 yards which needed a smart save from McGovern.

Davis then saw his shot from distance parried by Nyland before McGovern had to make another decent save from a Johansen free kick from the edge of box after Dallas had been adjudged to have handled the ball.

Norwood wouldn't score his first international goal on his 50th appearance as he was replaced by exciting new prospect George Saville at start of the second half.

And he nearly made an immediate impression as he won the ball in the centre of midfield, raced forward and fed Washington who turn played it back to him on the edge of the box. After taking a touch, the Millwall man couldn't quite pull the trigger with Nyland racing out to smother the effort.

Northern Ireland survived a scare on 51 minutes when, following a brilliant McGovern save from Tore Reginiiussen, Alexander Soderlund poked the ball into the net but the linesman had his flag up for offside with three Norwegians caught out.

The travelling Northern Ireland fans had been chanting Lafferty's name and O'Neill brought Hearts striker on with 21 minutes to go but not for Magennis, rather Washington made way.

His players, meanwhile, cried foul on 70 minutes when Alexander Sorloth was involved in a crunching challenge on Conor McLaughlin. The right back lay on the pitch in agony as Sorloth picked himself up and ran towards goal with the ball before playing in Johansen down the left. He took it to the byline and then produced a delicate cross-cum-chip which McGovern couldn't push away to safety and Chris Brunt at the back post could only rifle into the roof of the net. It was the 1,200th goal Northern Ireland have ever conceded.

The visitors immediately upped the tempo of their attacking play with Dallas' long range volley being deflected just wide, Lafferty had a glancing header saved while a McLaughlin snap shot inside a crowded six yard box just didn't find its way into the goal.

O'Neill made his final change of the night on 79 minutes with Corry Evans being replaced by Shane Ferguson - meaning he had three Millwall players on the pitch at the same time.

Northern Ireland became much more an attacking force in the closing stages and Saville missed a glorious chance to equalise with five minutes to go. Brunt directed a corner to the back post, Dallas did really well to knock it back into the danger zone but O'Neill's new recruit blazed his shot over the bar.

Brunt was booked on 87 minutes for stopping Norway take a quick throw in and, in injury time, McGovern had to make a brilliant diving save from substitute Tarik Elyounoussi.

Norway thought they had made it 2-0 right at the end when brilliant intricate play between Sorloth and Soderlund saw the latter fire home but the linesman put his flag up for offside, some five seconds after the ball nestled in the back of the net - much to the consternation of the Norwegians who berated the Ukrainian referee Serhiy Boiko as he blew the final whistle.

The Northern Ireland players and management team were quick to acknowledge the Green and White Army in attendance and Dallas even threw his shirt into the crowd.

But there was to be no celebration at the play-off success - the World Cup mission is not complete.

This amazing World Cup journey continues in the play-offs next month.

NORWAY: Nyland, Svensson, Reginiussen, Nordtveit, Meling, M Elyounoussi (T Elyounoussi, 71 mins), Henriksen (Selnaes, 83 mins), Berge, Johansen (Linnes, 87 mins), Soderlund, Sorloth. Unused subs: Jarstein, Skjelvik, Valsvik, Johnsen, Rosted, Elabdellaoui, Berget, Grytebust.

Northern Ireland: McGovern, C McLaughlin, McAuley, J Evans, Brunt, Davis, C Evans (Ferguson, 79 mins), Norwood (Saville, 46 mins), Magennis, Washington (K Lafferty, 69 mins), Dallas. Unused subs: Mannus, Hodson, McGinn, Paton, Flanagan, D Lafferty, Morris, Lund, Carroll.

Man of the Match: Alexander Sorloth

Match rating: 6/10

Referee: Serhiy Boiko (Ukraine).

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