Soccer

Michael O’Neill admits Northern Ireland’s qualification hopes are over

Northern Ireland’s Jonny Evans applauds the fans following the defeat (PA)
Northern Ireland’s Jonny Evans applauds the fans following the defeat (PA)

Michael O’Neill admitted Northern Ireland’s Euro 2024 hopes are over after Thursday’s 4-2 qualifying defeat to Slovenia left them adrift towards the bottom of Group H.

A fourth straight defeat left a six-point gap between Sunday’s opponents Kazakhstan in fourth place and Northern Ireland in fifth, with nine points separating them from leaders Finland.

Although not mathematically over, both the size of the deficit and the number of teams involved make it difficult to see a path to qualification.

“We’ve just got to finish as high as possible,” O’Neill said. “Qualification now, I think if we won all five games (remaining) it wouldn’t be enough. I’m not going to sit here and say ‘While it’s mathematically possible…’ and things like that.

Slovenia v Northern Ireland – UEFA Euro 2024 Qualifying – Group H – Stozice Stadium
Northern Ireland’s Conor Washington and Slovenia’s Erik Janza battle for the ball (PA)

“We’re trying to develop a team here. It’s a young team, a team that’s ravaged by injuries. Our chance in this group probably was to get momentum in the early part and we didn’t do that unfortunately.

“Now we’ve got to make sure we finish the group strong and so we can carry that forward for the preparations for the next tournament.”

Northern Ireland played positively, enjoying more possession and more chances than Slovenia, but left the door open at the back for Andraz Sporar and Benjamin Sesko to exploit.

“I thought Trai Hume, Shea Charles were excellent, Isaac Price getting his first goal, they’re all real positives,” O’Neill said. “That’s three young players who could all have played for the under-21s. Some of the senior boys put in a good performance as well – George Saville had a very good game as well.

“We will look at the game and some of things we did that were poor in the game but we’ll focus as well on a lot of things we did well and we’ll be ready to give it a go again on Sunday night.”

Slovenia v Northern Ireland – UEFA Euro 2024 Qualifying – Group H – Stozice Stadium
Northern Ireland’s Jonny Evans applauds the fans following the defeat (PA)

Northern Ireland’s injury headache got worse, with Ciaron Brown forced off after being hurt in the build-up to Slovenia’s second goal before his replacement, Craig Cathcart, hobbled off late on.

“Ciaron will be an extreme doubt (for Sunday), he’s twisted his ankle which led to the second goal, a deflected goal, so there was a little bit of misfortune for us there on a couple of counts,” O’Neill said.

“Craig, his groin was tight so we’ll see how he reacts. We’ve got a long flight to Astana to deal with and we’ll just have to assess the players probably before we go.”

Northern Ireland’s qualifying campaign has been all downhill since the opening win over San Marino in March, with the relentless run of injuries depriving O’Neill of some of his most effective dressing room leaders.

Slovenia v Northern Ireland – UEFA Euro 2024 Qualifying – Group H – Stozice Stadium
Northern Ireland’s George Saville (back right) and Shea Charles battle for the ball with Slovenia’s Timi Elsnik (PA)

Asked how he could pick his side up after this latest setback, O’Neill said: “I don’t think that will be difficult. There’s a sense of realism in the dressing room about where we are as a group at the minute.

“I think the bigger concern is if you going into the games feeling you’re inferior to the opposition. We don’t feel that in this group. The results have been disappointing for us obviously. It’s been well documented about the players that are unavailable to us.

“I think this group of players will be clearly a lot better of the experience of what they’re dealing with at the minute. For the younger ones in particular playing two games in the space of three days, both away from home, for many of them it’s their first experience of that.

“That’s the nature of international football and trying to qualify. We feel we due more points than the points that we have but we have to accept where we are at this minute in time and make sure that we finish as strongly as we can in the group.”