Sunday 18 March 2018

Injuries increase pressure on North

Rory Dollard in Belgrade

Northern Ireland manager Nigel Worthington was happy with the decision to shake up his starting XI against Serbia on Friday night, despite his side's Euro 2012 hopes taking a plunge after a 2-1 defeat.

Worthington sprung a couple of major surprises in his team selection, moving Gareth McAuley to centre-half at the expense of the experienced Stephen Craigan and handing youngsters Corry Evans and Johnny Gorman their first competitive starts in midfield.

In the first half his decisions appeared to be bearing fruit, with McAuley in particular in inspired form as he prevented a certain goal before heading home Chris Brunt's 40th-minute free-kick.

A Serbia reshuffle at the interval had the desired effect, with Marko Pantelic and Zoran Tosic getting the goals a dominant second-half showing warranted. Worthington, having been unimpressed with his side's draw against the Faroe Islands before a 3-0 humbling at the hands of Scotland, had no recriminations this time.

"The players I put in were excellent, I thought," said Worthington. "I've done it from day one, bringing youngsters in. There's no point in developing and working with youngsters if you're not going to bring them through.

"The first-half performance was exceptional. They did the job very well but Serbia are a very good side. At 1-0 down they threw everything forward and because of that you get pushed back and something happens. There was a deflection on the second goal but that's football.

"As long as we get ready to go again on Tuesday against Slovenia, we'll be okay. Four points (from the two matches) would have been good, but three wouldn't be the end of the world."

McAuley won special praise from Worthington after being shifted in from right-back. Dispensing with Motherwell veteran Craigan was seen as a gamble but the Ipswich man passed his test with flying colours.

"I made my mind up after the Scotland game, I thought the time was right to have a change of face next to Aaron Hughes," said Worthington. "I thought he, like many of the players, was outstanding. I've watched Gareth a number of times, as we do with all the players and he gives us a bit more pace."

Worthington will assess the fitness of his squad today ahead of the Slovenia match, which now takes on vital importance if Northern Ireland are to retain any hope of qualifying. He will be hoping for some good news but faces potential problems at both ends of the pitch. Captain Hughes played the full match despite going down after 20 minutes with a shoulder problem, while fellow defender Jonny Evans also received treatment.

Up front, Kyle Lafferty was taken off at half-time with a knee complaint, while his replacement, David Healy, is suspended after picking up a yellow card.

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