Sunday 15 December 2019

Northern Ireland stay unbeaten and now Euro 2016 beckons

Northern Ireland will fly out to Euro 2016 on the back of a 12-match unbeaten run having drawn 0-0 with Slovakia during a game where Aaron Hughes won his 100th cap in Trnava.

Michael O'Neill's side jet out to Lyon on Sunday armed with the long streak that should put them in good stead ahead of meetings with Poland, Ukraine and Germany in their first finals since the 1986 World Cup, though they may have to sweat on injury concerns over Craig Cathcart and Kyle Lafferty.

Slovakia, who defeated world champions Germany last weekend, were kept at bay by another brilliant rearguard performance from a defence that featured substitute Hughes from as early as 30 minutes in.

He replaced Cathcart who with key striker Lafferty came off with back and leg injuries respectively, although it is hoped that O'Neill was simply acting with caution.

Robert Mak came the closest to scoring for the hosts only to be denied one-on-one by Michael McGovern, while Martin Skrtel almost scored a late own goal following a Paddy McNair cross.

Hughes had started the contest on the bench but his century landmark arrived sooner than expected when Cathcart was withdrawn half an hour in.

There was little fanfare or build-up to Hughes' momentous appearance, which was probably exactly how the modest 36-year-old would have liked it as he trotted on the pitch to defend a corner against the side he faced on his debut in 1998.

He was kept busy in the first half, along with his defensive colleagues, as Slovakia asked questions of O'Neill's back three.

Vladimir Weiss fired wide, Michal Duris had to be denied by a last-ditch Gareth McAuley challenge, and Liverpool's Skrtel missed the target from a corner.

Their best opportunity came with five minutes remaining of the first half as Duris threaded a pass through which set Mak clear of the visiting defence.

Even after a heavy first touch, the winger would have been disappointed that he could not clip the ball past McGovern as the Hamilton stopper spread himself out.

Northern Ireland had chances of their own and Lafferty was furious an early attempt that was heading for the net appeared to be blocked by Peter Pekarik's arm, only for Romanian referee Marian Radu Petrescu to turn down his appeals.

A set-piece that was given on the stroke of half-time should have been routine for Matus Kozacik, yet he almost spilled the ball straight into captain Steven Davis' path before recovering to scoop clear.

The dangerous Weiss continued to pose the home side's biggest threat and after blazing over, having been slipped in behind Northern Ireland's defence, his free-kick flew across a host of bodies to lodge itself in McGovern's midriff.

While the former Manchester City man's presence was a cause for concern, O'Neill biggest worry was still injuries and his heart might have skipped a beat when he saw Lafferty on the turf needing treatment on a leg injury before the hour.

As was the case with Cathcart, he was taken off straight away as he walked around the pitch while Conor Washington took his place.

The former postman, who had scored in each of his previous two appearances for his country, nearly broke the deadlock moments after coming on having drifted off the left flank and firing an attempt which Kozacik kept out with his foot.

For the most part, though, this was another resolute defensive showing from Northern Ireland, for whom McAuley, Evans and Chris Baird all impressed, while they nearly claimed the three points courtesy of Skrtel's shanked clearance, which Kozacik was just able to keep out.


Carl Frampton MBE ‏@RealCFrampton: "Good result for the boys. 12 games unbeaten going in to the Euros! Unbelievable. #GAWA #DareToDream."


Michael McGovern: 6/10

Shane Ferguson: 7

Gareth McAuley: 8

Jonny Evans: 8

Craig Cathcart: 6

Paddy McNair: 6

Chris Baird: 8

Oliver Norwood: 6

Steven Davis: 7

Kyle Lafferty: 7

Jamie Ward: 6


Aaron Hughes (on for Cathcart, 30): 7

Josh Magennis (on for Ward, 46): 6

Conor Washington (on for Lafferty, 54): 7

Corry Evans (on for Norwood, 83): 6

Lee Hodson (on for Ferguson, 86): 6

Conor McLaughlin (on for McNair, 90): 6

STAR MAN: Chris Baird. Picked ahead of Paddy McNair in the defensive-midfield position and he was a brilliant shield, helping to keep talents like Marek Hamsik, Juraj Kucka and Vladimir Weiss at bay with his clean-up operation.

MOMENT OF THE MATCH: It has to be Aaron Hughes winning his 100th cap. A knee to Craig Cathcart's back forced him into action 30 minutes in and there was little ceremony surrounding the landmark outing. That should not distract from his achievement, though, as he joined Pat Jennings in his country's exclusive century club.

MOAN OF THE MATCH: With the Euros now in touching distance for both teams, there was no need for some of the rough treatment meted out by the Slovakians. Let's hope it does not rule Cathcart or Lafferty out of any fixtures in France.

VIEW FROM THE DUGOUT: There can be little doubt that Michael O'Neill will now deploy a back three in France and he may have learned that Conor Washington should start alongside Lafferty rather than Jamie Ward. While Baird was impressive, McNair looks out of place at right-wing back so there is a conundrum over the Manchester United man's role too.


Northern Ireland v Poland, Euro 2016 - Sunday, June 12.

Wales v Slovakia, Euro 2016 - Saturday, June 11.

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