Football/Soccer

Northern Ireland are kicked low and beaten in cut-throat Nations League

Northern Ireland's Liam Boyce with a headed chance against Austria - but lack of goals have cost the men in green dearly.

NORTHERN Ireland have been ‘bringing a knife to a gunfight’ – and one without sufficient sharpness.

Consequently, opposition sharp-shooters have put them down, although the pain of the latest defeat, to a last-gasp goal from Austria, was more like “a kick in the you-know-whats” according to Liam Boyce.

The Burton Albion forward battled manfully as the centre-forward in a 4-3-3 system, playing his part in the equalising goal from Corry Evans, but that was only the second goal for NI in four Nations League matches.

Austria scored a second on the night to inflict a fourth defeat, second after the hosts had looked like carving out a winner themselves at Windsor Park:

“It’s sort of a kick in the you-know-whats,” bemoaned Boyce. “I think we can be confident from going from the Republic game, when we played really well, to a step up in quality and do the same things - and it worked for most of the game.

“We went from nearly scoring in the last 20 seconds of the game to them going up the other end and scoring.

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“But we just have to keep believing in how we’re playing and taking confidence from the performances. We obviously have to fine-tune a few things but results will start to come.”

Manager Michael O’Neill has put in place a more attacking, high-pressing approach over the past year, in contrast to the more defensive, pragmatic game-plan deployed up to last year’s World Cup play-off second leg.

“At the start of Nations League we didn’t know what way we were going to play,” admits Boyce.

“Obviously before the first game we talked about what way we were going to do it and for most of the time it has gone really well.

“It’s been good to see how Michael wants us to play come to fruition and I believe it is working, even with a step up in quality.

“We just need to concentrate and keep believing in it. The more we do it, the more we get used to it and we have to look at everyone having a clean slate going into the Euro 2020 qualifiers. We’ve got nothing to lose.”

Yet lose they did, despite finding the Austrian net with an equaliser: “We scored a good goal with Jordan’s pace up the left and Corry getting through the middle. It was a good move and a good finish.

“We showed character to come back from 1-0 down and I think we were the better side until the final 30 seconds of the match.

“When they brought on [Marko] Arnautovic you could see the quality he has and he started to cause problems - and the counter-attack goal at the end was a killer.”

Midfielder George Saville was understandably downbeat afterwards, after another undeserved defeat, saying: “It’s the same as throughout the whole Nations League campaign. We did really well with our performance and it’s just that cutting edge [which opponents have and NI lack]. Ultimately you get punished at this level.

“Losing with the last kick of the game is deflating, especially when seconds before we were at the other end trying to win the game and give the fans what they deserve for sticking with us. The way we lost is difficult to take.”

He’s been frustrated in front of goal himself, with another effort narrowly wide on Sunday night, but he won’t give up: “I have been close to scoring a couple of times now. I will keep knocking on the door and hopefully one will go in. ..

“We will take the positives out of it and we all know it is not the end of the world. We have to forget about the defeat but take the positives that we have experienced in the Nations League into the Euro qualifiers in March.

“I’m learning all the time. Michael has brought me in and been fantastic with me. I’m absolutely loving it and as a team we are learning all the time.

“I do feel we are playing well in games and are getting better and better. What we need now are good results to go with those performances”.

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