Saturday 17 February 2018

Croatia hand Northern Ireland their worst defeat in four years

Croatia's Duje Cop (centre) celebrates scoring his side's second goal of the game during the International Friendly at Windsor Park
Croatia's Duje Cop (centre) celebrates scoring his side's second goal of the game during the International Friendly at Windsor Park

James Ducker

A memorable year for Northern Irish football ended on a rather bum note at Windsor Park on Tuesday night as Michael O’Neill’s side crashed to their heaviest defeat for four-and-a half years.

Northern Ireland’s progress to the last 16 in their first European Championship finals in France in the summer was the high mark of a glorious past 12 months while a strong start to qualifying for the 2018 World Cup has raised hopes of the country making it all the way to Russia.

But not since the infancy of O’Neill reign as manager had he tasted a loss as heavy as this, and while it will soon be forgotten if Northern Ireland can triumph against Norway in their next World Cup qualifier in March, their defending will have to improve for that to happen.

A patched up Croatia side twice took advantage of some sloppy mistakes to take a 2-0 lead into the interval before a stunning 25-yard strike from man-of-the-match Andrej Kramaric, the former Leicester City striker, capped a miserable night for the home side. It was their worst defeat since a 6-0 loss to Holland in Amsterdam in O’Neill’s second game in charge in June 2012.

For O’Neill, the next few months will be all about preparing for the crucial next World Cup qualifier at home to Norway in March. Win that and Northern Ireland really will be on a strong footing to finish in the first two places in Group C. The Norwegians provided O’Neill’s first opponents as Northern Ireland manager in February 2012, since when he has overseen a quite dramatic transformation in the country’s fortunes.

Croatia arrived here to face a side that had last lost at Windsor Park more than three years ago, a reflection of how hard O’Neill has made beating this modest set of players. They have made a habit of defending doggedly, of being well organised and cohesive, which is why the two goals a severely weakened Croatia scored from their only two attacks of note in a low key opening period will have so frustrated O’Neill.

The first was a particularly cheap one to concede, the second straight out of the Northern Ireland scrapbook of set-plays. Defend like that against Norway and they will be asking for trouble. There were barely nine minutes on the clock when Andrej Kramaric played a ball in behind Northern Ireland’s defence.

Duje Cop’s low shot was spilled by Alan Mannus, making his first start in goal since March 2014, and after several failed attempts by the home side to clear their lines, Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic scooped the ball home for his fifth goal in four games for his country.

O’Neill had fielded a stronger side than many expected. Only captain Steven Davis, striker Kyle Lafferty and goalkeeper Michael McGovern were missing of note. Croatia, by contrast, were shorn of most of their stars. There was no Luka Modric, no Ivan Rakitic, no Mateo Kovavic, no Ivan Perisic. Defenders Vedran Corluka and Dejan Lovren were also absent, as was first choice goalkeeper Danijel Subatic.

Northern Ireland’s build-up play was decent enough and on several occasions they got to the bye-line or into dangerous positions but invariably the final ball was missing. Try as he might, Ross County striker Liam Boyce cut a laboured figure upfront. A long throw-in early on by Josh Magennis was flicked on by Jonny Evans before the ball wormed its way to Paddy McNair, whose blistering drive deflected wide, but it was Croatia who would make the most of dead ball situations. In the 35th minute, Kramaric whipped over a corner, no one was tight enough to Matej Mitrovic, who flicked the ball into the path of Cop to sweep home a volley from close range.

Changes were inevitable at half-time. O’Neill had handed Matthew Lund his international debut but opted to withdraw the Rochdale midfielder for Davis in the hope of bringing some more impetus to the midfield. Conor McLaughlin and Ryan McGivern were also introduced in defence, with Lee Hodson switching from right to left back and, before long, Lafferty was on for Magennis. Northern Ireland were fortunate not to be 3-0 down by then.

Mannus had foolishly picked up a back-pass 12 yards out but the 10 men patrolling Northern Ireland’s goalline were not called into action with substitute Marcelo Brozovic blazing a cleverly worked short free-kick high over the crossbar when it had seemed easier to hit the target.

There was just not the fluidity to the hosts’ play that had been so evident in their resounding 4-0 win over Azerbaijan on Friday. Niall McGinn had made little headway down the left on his 50th appearance for his country and made way for Paul Paton shortly after the hour mark but O’Neill was really looking to Davis and Lafferty for some inspiration.

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