Slovakia end Northern Ireland's Euro dream with nightmare goals
Euro play-off/ Nations League Path B Final: Northern Ireland 1-2 Slovakia (after extra time)
They’re on their way, they’re on their way,
Dublin, Dublin, and Bilbao…
Sadly it’s only Slovakia who can sing that song, meaning no Irish team at the Aviva next summer for the two group matches there, nor in the Basque country to take on Spain.
Substitute Michal Duris struck a second goal for the Slovaks in the second period of extra time, forced by a very late leveller for the hosts, an own goal by Milan Skriniar cancelling out Juraj Kucka’s early opener.
Two teams in Ireland – but none at the Euros.
Northern Ireland, instead of heading down the road to Dublin twice, are down and out due to a dodgy back-header from George Saville which led to that first goal from Kucka, then more sloppiness for the extra time winner from Duris.
In truth the better team won with Northern Ireland lacking attacking ideas for the bulk of this game. It was only late on that they truly gave the just over 1000 fans in the ground something to sing and shout about after a mostly disappointing display.
Much has been made of the home fans at Windsor Park, but given the limp performances here when they’re absent or severely limited in numbers, their description as ‘the 12th man’ is probably an understatement.
For much of this match it definitely looked like the Falcons would be flying to Dublin and Bilbao next summer, after Kucka netted a 17th minute opener – but late drama brought extra time.
Paddy McNair surged down the right, fizzed the ball across, and – under pressure from the hero of Sarajevo, Liam Boyce – Slovak defender Milan Skriniar put the ball into his own net in the 87th minute.
The leveller was reward for home boss Ian Baraclough going bold, both in his starting selection and in sending on attackers later in the game.
The home manager began by pairing Josh Magennis in a front two with Conor Washington, while Niall McGinn was on the right wing and the attacking Stuart Dallas at right-back.
The Slovakian side was close to what was anticipated, with Ondrej Duda as the ‘false nine’ up front. Defensively they were much-changed from last month, however, with the 35-year-old Tomas Hubocan brought out of international retirement to play left-back, and Lubomir Satka recalled at centre back for his first international appearance this year.
Alongside him was another alteration from recent games, albeit what certainly appeared to be a boost, with Inter Milan’s highly-rated Skriniar back in after missing the October matches due to positive test for coronavirus.
The Slovaks were very confident – and very good – on the ball, including centre back Skriniar, although at times he took unnecessary risks.
Slovakia had the first sight of goal, right-back Peter Pekarik wriggling past Jamal Lewis into the box, but Dallas was swiftly across to clear the danger.
Yet the next minute, out of nothing, the visitors were in front.
Close to halfway, Saville rose to head and bizarrely chose to nod the ball backwards, beyond Jonny Evans. Kucka gleefully seized on the opportunity, strode forward, and stroked a low shot inside the exposed Bailey Peacock-Farrell’s left-hand post.
The hosts almost scored an even more unexpected equaliser shortly afterwards, when McGinn delivered a deep cross which flew and flew before dipping just under the crossbar – with goalkeeper Marek Rodak acrobatically tipping it over. From the second of two corners which followed, there was a half-chance in the six-yard box, but the home forwards couldn’t convert.
NI did at least grow into the game, but their attacking ideas were limited, largely consisting of chipping passes to the head of Magennis. He did win a few flick-ons and nod-downs, but they came to nothing.
Close to the break a bad square pass from the Slovaks gave McGinn a sniff, but he probably shot too early, and certainly far too high.
NI began the second half much better, pressing high to win back possession, then probing patiently for an opening when they got the ball – perhaps too patiently at times, with chances for long range shots not taken.
McGinn robbed Lobotka for a three on two break but chose Washington to his left and the striker’s right-foot shot was straight at the goalkeeper.
Both teams made personnel changes, with Baraclough sending on Gavin Whyte and Jordan Thompson for Washington and Saville.
Ten minutes later, with 15 minutes of normal time to play, he introduced two strikers, Kyle Lafferty and Liam Boyce, taking off Magennis and McGinn.
Yet still the men in green struggled to make an impact, or come close to a breakthrough, even though goalkeeper Rodak punched and flapped at every ball that came his way.
A clever flick from Lafferty did release Dallas down the left, but his cross was over-hit beyond Boyce.
At last the home team seemed to spark into life, with left-back Lewis then McNair seeing shots charged down as they pinned the visitors back.
Finally McNair did some damage, getting to the right byline, sending a dangerous low delivery, and as Boyce tried to get there Skriniar sent it into his own goal.
Lafferty then almost won it in the 90th minute, but his well-struck drive struck the wrong sife of the post from a home perspective.
Slovakia pushed forward in search of a winner during four minutes of added time but Northern Ireland held out, and extra time followed.
The first period was uneventful, with tiredness starting to really take its toll on players, including Slovak skipper Marek Hamsik, who was subbed.
However, Duris produced a moment of quality to prevent another penalty shootout. A ball forward from midfield appeared to pose little danger, but it broke off Jonny Evans to the centre-forward, and his low right-foot shot beat Peacock-Farrell inside his near post.
Evans had a late headed opportunity to force spot-kicks when Whyte sent a cross into the packed penalty area, but his header was clutched gratefully by Rodak – and Northern Ireland’s Euro dream had been locked down.
Northern Ireland: Peacock-Farrell; Dallas, Cathcart (Flanagan, 98), J Evans, Lewis; McGinn (Boyce, 76), Davis (capt.), McNair (Ferguson, 104, inj.), Saville (Thompson, 66); Magennis (Lafferty, 76), Washington (Whyte, 66).
Slovakia: Rodak; Pekarik, Satka Skriniar, Hubocan; Lobotka (Hrosovosky, 65), Kucka, Hamsik (Gregus, 105); Rusnak (Gyomber, 118), Duda (Mraz, 83), Mak (Duris, 65).
Referee: Felix Brych (Germany).
Northern Ireland ratings:
Bailey Peacock-Farrell: Exposed for the goal. Fumbled a corner but recovered the ball. Had little to do after that in 90 minutes – but looked like he should have done better with second goal. 6
Stuart Dallas: Earning his 50th cap, began brightly but hurt his arm in a challenge with the burly Hubocan. Came back on and offered threat on both flanks. 7
Craig Cathcart: A mostly steady showing, carrying the ball forward well on occasions. Replaced in extra time. 6
Jonny Evans: Left wrong-footed for the goal by Saville but never lost his composure, strong in challenges and good at snuffing out danger. Ball broke off him in lead-up to second goal - and headed a last-gasp chance at their keeper. 6.5
Jamal Lewis: Up and down the left flank, up and down in his performance, leaving space in behind, and only occasionally looked capable of causing problems going forward. 6
Niall McGinn: Hugged the right touchline, but also cut in to cross with his left at time. One with his right nearly dipped in. 6.5
Steven Davis: The captain, collecting his 123rd cap, was as neat and tidy ever, and managed to find the energy to drive team on in the closing stages of normal time. Pulled up late in extra time. 6
Paddy McNair: Began brightly and finished normal time in the same style, forcing the leveller with a strong run and driven low cross. In between diligently tracked runners in midfield. Took a knock in extra time and was taken off. 7
George Saville: Inexplicable decision to head the ball back leading to the goal. Played OK after that, apart from a poor shot, and was subbed. 5.5
Josh Magennis: Plenty of effort, some nice cross-field passes to spread play, and always posed an aerial threat to stretch Slovak defence. 6.5
Conor Washington: Spent the first half closing down the goalkeeper. Got a chance from McGinn’s pass but his first touch wasn’t great and he shot straight at Rodak, 6
Gavin Whyte: The first sub on, for Washington, showed some smart touches on the right wing. 6
Jordan Thompson: Took over from Saville in central midfield, solid but made little impact. 5.5
Kyle Lafferty: On for Magennis, almost won with a 90th minute shot which struck the post. 7
Liam Boyce: Put pressure on Skriniar to force him to put ball into his own net. 6
Tom Flanagan: Replaced Cathcart in extra time. 6
Shane Ferguson: On for McNair in extra time. 6
They’re on their way, they’re on their way
Dublin, Dublin, and Bilbao
Probably on the Goldliner
Then via Easyjet (or perhaps by boat)
The Green and White Army is on their way
Spain, Sweden, and Poland,
There was defeat against another ‘northern’ team for Vladimir Weiss Sr, the manager of Georgia, who lost their Path D final at home to North Macedonia in the early kick-off.