Saturday 21 April 2018

'Sense of relief' for O'Neill as North seal play-off spot despite defeat

Norway 1 Northern Ireland 0

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill after the match. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill after the match. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA

James Ducker

No-one should underestimate Northern Ireland's achievement in securing a play-off spot despite this defeat, settled by Chris Brunt's own-goal.

There are plenty who thought it might be a downward spiral after Euro 2016 but success in France merely sharpened the focus and strengthened belief.

This is a very modest bunch of players, but their collective spirit is supplemented by a very clear, cohesive framework.

Everyone knows their roles, everyone buys into Michael O'Neill's plan and they have become a disciplined, diligent defensive unit capable of hurting opposition on the counter-attack and not least from set-pieces, which are a potent weapon.

The fans have played their part, too. Windsor Park has become something of a cauldron - the 3-1 defeat to Germany last Thursday was the first there in a competitive fixture for four years - and on the road they travel in droves.

That much was evident last night when the green and white army accounted for almost half the crowd at a sparse Ullevaal Stadium.

Northern Ireland's Steaven Davis (left) and Norway's Markus Henriksen battle for the ball during their World Cup Qualifying match. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA
Northern Ireland's Steaven Davis (left) and Norway's Markus Henriksen battle for the ball during their World Cup Qualifying match. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA

The party had started an hour before kick-off as news filtered through of Scotland's result and Northern Ireland's faithful gleefully exhausted their song book.

O'Neill (left) admitted there was a "sense of relief" in the dressing-room that a play-off spot had been secured without a ball being kicked, and while no-one in the away camp was going to complain about that, it did serve to take the sting of the game.

O'Neill is not worried that his side are now very unlikely to be seeded in the play-offs , saying: "We can't be greedy. We are up against some great teams potentially in the play-offs and we will just have to deal with whatever draw comes.

"This team is punching above its weight massively, it has done for a considerable amount of time.

Norway's Alexander Sorloth (left) battles for the ball with Northern Ireland's Stuart Dallas. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA
Norway's Alexander Sorloth (left) battles for the ball with Northern Ireland's Stuart Dallas. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA

"We came through a very difficult group, so the players deserve a massive amount of credit for what they have achieved so far."

Michael McGovern made a couple of decent saves and Steven Davis had a shot spilled but there was little else to recommend a first half low on quality and intensity.

Despite having six players on a disciplinary tightrope, one booking away from being suspended for the first leg of the play-off, O'Neill had resisted the temptation to rest players.

But no-one was prepared to overexert themselves and invite trouble.

The only goal of the game came 20 minutes from full-time when a Stefan Johansen cross from the left looped over McGovern and Brunt, on the line, could only slice the ball horribly into his own net when attempting to clear.

Meanwhile, Leon Goretzka inspired Germany to a 5-1 rout over Azerbaijan as the defending champions wrapped up their qualification campaign in style.

The Schalke midfielder's brilliant backheel sent the hosts on their way to victory at the Fritz-Walter-Stadion in Kaiserslautern.

Sandro Wagner also continued his fine form by scoring his fifth goal in five caps.

Ramil Sheydaev did equalise for Azerbaijan before half-time, but they fell apart after the break, conceding three times in 12 minutes from Wagner, Antonio Rudiger and Goretzka, with Emre Can adding a stunning late fifth. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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