Northern Ireland leave it late to beat Belarus in Euro 2020 qualifier
Euro 2020 qualifying group C: Northern Ireland 2-1 Belarus
IT’S rare for the cultured Steven Davis to hoof the ball out of play, rarer still for such an act to be greeted by huge cheers from his own supporters, but the Green and White Army were delighted to hang on for another vital victory.
This second consecutive win in the Euro 2020 qualifiers was fully deserved, thanks to a well-worked 87th minute goal by substitute Josh Magennis, but there were still nervous moments to endure and ensure the victory.
Paddy McNair, who had celebrated his assist to Magennis like a goal, made a crucial challenge to prevent giant centre-forward Denis Laptev converting a cut-back from Pavel Nekhaychik.
The latter than sneaked in at the back post in the fourth minute of added time, connecting with a deep centre from the far flank, but saw his shot kept out by the left leg of goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell.
For all that Belarus threatened sporadically on the break, though, this home win was fully merited, with the opening goal from Jonny Evans only cancelled out by a fluke effort from midfielder Igor Stasevich.
The visitors didn’t concede a single goal in their six Nations League matches, but that was at a lower level, and they were second best to Michael O’Neill’s men for much of this match.
The confidence gained from the opening victory over Estonia was apparent, with the unchanged hosts pressing high and sharply, but it still took some time to force a serious effort on goal.
McNair was the man behind it, with a right-foot pile-driver, but goalkeeper Andrei Klimovich was behind it all the way too, plunging to his right to push it well away.
A similar effort from the other side of the pitch led to the opening goal, as the keeper again turned a shot away, this time Kyle Lafferty’s dipper directed out for a corner.
A short corner routine allowed Niall McGinn to whip over a centre, skipper Steven Davis flicked it on, and Evans was utterly unmarked, waiting and watching, licking his lips like a fox in a chicken coop, before heading precisely down and in.
The home joy didn’t last long, though, around three minutes in fact. The veteran Aleksandr Hleb swept the ball out left to Stasevich, whose shot took a huge deflection off Stuart Dallas and looped over Peacock-Farrell’s leap for the lead to be lost in an unfortunate Leeds combination.
Typically the home support sang on after a short, stunned silence, and the home players responded positively.
Dallas almost turned provider at the right end, a long throw trapped by George Saville, but his snapshot was parried out at the near post by Klimovich.
Jordan Jones then showed superb skill to keep the ball in play on the left touchline before delivering a fabulous left-footed centre – but there was no one in the six-yard box to apply the finish it deserved.
Lafferty was in the right place five minutes into the second half, but failed to convert a fine cross from McGinn, but fortunately for the Kesh man he had strayed offside.
The big centre-forward did better 10 minutes later, winning possession and then finding Jones, whose cross came back to McNair – he made the right call to control the ball but his low shot was blocked by the onrushing centre-half Sivakov.
The Belarussians remained dangerous on the break, able to shift the ball smartly and swiftly, and one such counter-attack led to a half-chance, only half-hit by the right-sided Pavel Savitski.
The first home change saw Josh Magennis come on for McGinn, who had struggled to get into this game, but brought no change of system or fortune.
The main threat continued to come from the other flank, through the youthful duo of Jamal Lewis and Jones, although the latter sometimes didn’t take the right option.
Left-back Lewis definitely did when he swung over a tantalising centre which seemed to have Lafferty’s name on it – but he appeared to duck under it rather than head it in with the keeper off his line.
Liam Boyce was immediately brought on as his replacement, but it was the other new attacker, Magennis, who made the difference.
Indeed the Bolton Wanderer started and finished the move for the decisive goal. Receiving possession outside the box, he shaped to shoot, but instead released Stuart Dallas. He in turn found McNair, whose precise low centre was calmly slammed to the net by Magennis.
The Bangor man made a headed clearance in his own defence after McNair’s intervention to deny Laptev, but nerves continued to jangle until young Peacock-Farrell left the men in green crowing.
With Germany snatching a late win in the Netherlands, Northern Ireland are now three points clear at the top, with trips to Estonia and Belarus to come in June.
There’s a long road to travel, but the first two steps have been taken in the right direction.
Northern Ireland: Peacock-Farrell; Dallas, Cathcart, J Evans, Lewis; McNair, Davis (capt.), Saville; McGinn (Magennis, 68), Lafferty (Boyce, 79), Jones (Ferguson, 85).
Belarus: Klimovich; Shitov (Polyakov, 73), Sivakov, Martynovich, Volodko; Maevski, Hleb (Putilo, 66), Dragun; Savitski (Nekhaychik, 85), Laptev, Stasevich.
Referee: Pawel Raczkowski (Poland).