Northern Ireland lucky to lose by only one to Austria in Nations League
Uefa Nations League B, Group 1, round three: Northern Ireland 0-1 Austria
'Nations League' is the new name for 'friendlies' – but Northern Ireland's record in such encounters is no different, no better.
Seven games, six defeats, and this one should have been far worse than the single goal margin inflicted by Michael Gregoritsch late in the first half.
The hero of Sarajevo's penalty shoot-out, Liam Boyce, had a late chance to level but a point would have been extremely undeserved.
Ten of the visitors' starting XI represent Bundesliga clubs, right winger Reinhold Ranftl, of LASK, their only home-based starter.
Yet if the cliché is of German efficiency then the hosts were thankful for Austrian inefficiency, which was putting it politely.
In truth, it was dreadful finishing which prevented the visitors being much further ahead, with defender Martin Hinteregger then wide midfielder Christoph Baumgartner, twice, the chief culprits.
Instead of it being 'Goodnight Vienna', Northern Ireland somehow remained in the game right until the end because for most of the match the Austrians looked like they couldn't finish a schnitzel supper.
As chance after chances was spurned, it took a moment to realise that the jeers and derisive chants were from real supporters rather than the work of a mean-spirited audio director.
Yet for mucht of the first half there may as well not have been any home fans allowed in, rather than the 'lucky' 600 selected by ballot, so little was there for them to get excited about.
It was perhaps understandable that NI appeared off the pace after their exertions in Sarajevo last Thursday night, when they took Bosnia & Herzegovina to extra time before beating them on penalties in the Euro play-off semi-final.
Unsurprisingly, manager Ian Baraclough made five changes, starting with Michael McGovern coming into nets, with Conor McLaughlin making his first start for two years at right back. The other three alterations were all in attack, with Gavin Whyte, Kyle Lafferty, and Jordan Jones lining out after coming off the bench in Sarajevo.
Austria showed six different starters from the side that began their last outing, the 2-1 friendly win over Greece in Klagenfurt – all four flank positions and the front two. Baumgartner, the sub who netted their late winner last Wednesday, got the nod, but the main focus was on Bayern Munich star David Alaba returning at left-back following a lengthy injury absence.
Having surprisingly lost at home to Romania after winning away to Norway, the visitors were playing catch-up, with the Norwegians walloping Romania 4-0 to follow their 5-1 triumph in Belfast last month.
Austria soon showed their quality, repeatedly bypassing the home midfield – not by the traditional British/Irish method of hoofing balls over the top but by straight balls slicing through the green lines, leading to neat flicks and 'round the corner' touches finding forward runners.
All that was missing was a goal – and there was plenty of glaring missing once the game entered its second quarter.
First Alaba whipped in a free kick from out near the right touchline, finding giant centre half Hinteregger utterly unmarked but the Eintracht Frankfurt man's head barely brushed the ball as it went on into McGovern's gloves.
Then a slip from centre half Craig Cathcart left Baumgartner completely free outside the penalty area, with only the 'keeper to beat, but the Hoffenheim attacker incredibly bent his right-footed shot outside the far post rather than inside it.
Next Baumgartner again missed from even closer range, volleying over after Gregoritsch had coolly nodded a cross down into his path just outside the six-yard box.
The deadlock was finally broken in the 42nd minute, when the hosts' defensive laxity was too welcoming even for Austria not to capitalise on.
Hinteregger was allowed far too much time and space to tee up his cross from the inside left channel and when the ball came across Augsburg attacker Gregoritsch revelled in the social distancing to head down and inside McGovern's right hand post.
Northern Ireland made a better start to the second half, although that's a watery-weak compliment.
Lafferty began to hold the ball up, the full-backs advanced, and Dallas got much further forward in midfield. However, there was a distinct lack of ideas about how to break down the Austrian defence even when NI did have possession high up the pitch.
The introduction of Conor Washington, replacing Lafferty, lifted matters, with the Charlton man pressing higher, but the closest the men in green came to equalising was when Dallas delivered right-footed from the left only for Jonny Evans's glancing header to go straight to Pavao Pervan.
As Austria probed for a clinching second Alaba pushed up into midfield, with Ilsanker dropping back, but several searching crosses from out wide by the visitors failed to find a forward.
Baraclough freshened up his midfield, sending on Corry Evans and Jordan Thompson for Davis and Dallas, although the greater energy was probably cancelled out by a reduction in creative potential.
On came attackers Josh Magennis and Boyce for the final 10 minutes of play, replacing McNair and Whyte, as the 4-3-3 which had been mostly a 4-5-1 morphed into a bold 4-2-4 formation.
Yet Austria nearly took advantage as the hosts tried to force an equaliser, Baumgartner skipping past several challenges into the penalty area before Jonny Evans swept across the box to deny him a shooting opportunity.
In the second of four minutes of added time Thompson did show smart thinking to ping a quick free kick into the path of Boyce on the right of the box, but his fierce shot flashed across the face of goal and Austria had the win their dominance deserved.
Northern Ireland: McGovern; C McLaughlin, Cathcart, J Evans, Lewis; Dallas (Thompson, 73), Davis (capt.) (C Evans, 73), McNair (Magennis, 83); Whyte (Boyce, 83), Lafferty (Washington, 61), Jones.
Austria: Pervan; Lainer, Dragovic, Hinteregger, Alaba; Ranftl (Trimmel, 73), Ilsanker, Baumgartlinger (capt.), Baumgartner; Gregoritsch (Grbic, 80), Schlager.
Referee: Petr Ardeleanu (Czech Republic).
Northern Ireland ratings:
Michael McGovern: Making his first start since the friendly against the Czechs last year he appeared composed and could do nothing about the goal. 6.5
Conor McLaughlin: Back in from the cold and didn't let himself down, putting in some strong tackles. 6
Craig Cathcart: An uncharacteristic error let in Baumgartner, who missed badly and not as forceful in the air as normal - was nowhere near goalscorer Grigoritsch. 5.5
Jonny Evans: Not up to his usual high standards, not least in allowing some free headers at goal, but did drift across stylishly to deny Baumgartner a late shooting opportunity. 6
Jamal Lewis: The new Newcastle man didn't catch the eye either for good or bad, despite being targeted by Austria trying to get in behind him. Needs to be sharper in attacking positions. 5.5
Stuart Dallas: Another test of the Leeds man's versatility, deployed in central midfield alongside Davis. Put himself about, but to little effect. 5.5
Steven Davis: The captain did some decent defensive covering work but didn't show much going forward. 5.5
Paddy McNair: Often the most advanced of the midfield three but with scant end product, apart from his dead ball deliveries. 5.5
Gavin Whyte: Looked lively getting up and down early on but offered no discernible threat of scoring. 5
Kyle Lafferty: Frustrated in the physical battle against the equally lanky Hinteregger and was the first man subbed, on the hour. 5
Jordan Jones: The Rangers man made a strong start but quickly faded. Showed some nice skills but must make more of an impression. 5.5
Conor Washington: On for Lafferty on the hour and offered some spark but lacked supply too. 5.5
Corry Evans: A steady presence when he came on, kept it neat and tidy. 5.5
Jordan Thompson: Booked for a clattering foul on the goalscorer but almost set up a late leveller with a clever quick free kick. 6
Josh Magennis: Sent onto the right flank but never really had a chance to show what he can do. 5
Liam Boyce: Pushed up alongside Washington and made a good run to create space – but fired his shot wide of the far post. 6