Northern Ireland: There’s still a reason to smile – Five things we noticed
After highs, lows and everything in between – Northern Ireland’s triple-header comes to a close with a 1-0 defeat in Norway.
The high is the penalty shootout win over Bosnia-Herzegovina, which will long in the memory and sets up a tantalising decider with Slovakia for a spot at Euro 2020.
Two more Nations League defeats were the lows, but ultimately October’s set of matches were about winning in Sarajevo, and in that regard it is mission accomplished for Ian Baraclough.
Here are five things we noticed as Northern Ireland’s drought in the Nations League continues.
With Steven Davis handed a well-earned rest, Jonny Evans skippered Northern Ireland for the first time in a competitive game.
It was a role Evans excelled in, guiding the inexperienced duo of Flanagan and Ballard well against Erling Haaland, who had run riot in Belfast a month earlier.
Then with the Leicester City man handed a breather at half-time, it was his brother Corry who took over the armband.
NI statto Marshall Gillespie says, to the best of his extensive knowledge, Wednesday’s game is the first time two brothers have captained Northern Ireland in the same match.
A fitting moment for two of Northern Ireland’s most-reliable players and a lovely moment for the Evans family.
Thin on the ground
With the triple-header and plenty of minutes already in the legs, Baraclough made 10 changes for the game in Oslo.
It was a chance for players to stake a claim to play in this team, and while perhaps no-one stood out, it was a tidy team performance with Ballard and Flanagan putting in a solid shift at the heart of defence.
George Saville, Jordan Thompson and Evans kept things ticking over in midfield, and crucially muffled the influence of Martin Odegaard, while Michael Smith and Shane Ferguson put in a shift at full-back.
The work rate of this Northern Ireland side is extra ordinary, and Baraclough’s decision to change things up was a wise one given the effort put in the previous two matches.
In a night-and-day performance from the 5-1 defeat in September, it was clear NI wanted to try and right a few wrongs from the Windsor Park demolition and although they fell to another defeat, they have shown they can mix it with one of the most promising sides in European football.
Carson steps up
You get yourself ready for a night on the bench and then, all of a sudden, you are facing the hottest youngster in world football.
Trevor Carson certainly didn’t expect to be starting in Oslo, but Bailey Peacock-Farrell’s injury in the warm-up offered the Motherwell man a chance.
He denied Haaland in the opening moments, with help from Flanagan, and he pulled off another superb stop to keep put Joshua King shortly into the second half.
The floodgates opened in Belfast after Norway scored inside two minutes, so Carson’s early stop was crucial and gave his side a solid platform.
Carson was helpless for the goal, as was the unfortunate Stuart Dallas, and if it is the worst case scenario and Peacock-Farrell is to miss the Slovakia game, he has shown he is a reliable deputy if called upon.
After starting with an out-and-out striker and two wide men in his previous outings in a 4-3-3, Baraclough switched things up by starting both Josh Magennis and Conor Washington in Norway as Northern Ireland set up with a 5-3-2 formation.
The pair linked up well, as they did away to Estonia in qualifying back in June 2019, and they looked threatening in front of goal in the first half on top of their trademark hard running and work rate.
The lack of chances was an issue against Austria, but immediately the attacking duo looked lively and both players tested home stopper Andre Hansen.
Things dried up after the restart and although an equaliser may not have come, it gives the NI boss food for thought for the Euro 2020 play-off decider.
Belfast awaits as Baraclough’s boys bid for a spot in the Euro 2020 finals next summer.
So far, Northern Ireland have conceded first in every game Baraclough has taken charge, a trend he will no doubt want to put right.
It’s hard to come back time after time at this level of football, however yet again there were more positive points to take from the game in Oslo.
Most-importantly, bar Peacock-Farrell, it looks like everyone came through the game unscathed and it is crucial that Baraclough can put out his strongest starting team at Windsor Park on 12 November.
Northern Ireland have a habit of stepping up to the occasion, so you can bet they will be firing on all cylinders to help the GAWA dare to dream once more.