Thursday, 18 October 2007

Draw is Swede: but Nigel still has to convince

It was pleasing to see Northern Ireland arrest the decline under Nigel Worthington with an excellent result and creditable performance against Sweden in Stockholm.

It would be wrong to go over the top and adjudge this result as the moment Worthington’s charges regained their form after a period of transition. There are two more matches remaining in this group and in order to convince the IFA to renew his contract, it is my belief that the manager needs to win one of them.

Although both work-rate and attitude of the team were unrecognisable from the previous two games, Northern Ireland were playing an oddly anaemic Swedish side and really captain Aaron Hughes might have dealt better with the speculative far post cross which saw Olaf Mellberg sneaking in to give Sweden a fifteenth minute lead.

Sweden showed little inclination to push forward for a second and they seemed happy to cede possession, which suited the style of play Worthington favours. Chris Brunt’s long range effort came closest to equalising before Kyle Lafferty’s wonder strike. Brunt remains frustratingly enigmatic, with a mixture of beautifully crafted left foot shots and crosses subsisting alongside much more numerous scuffed and misplaced efforts.

It would be churlish to be overly negative about an away draw against a top 10 ranked side. Northern Ireland did play some neat stuff at times and most of the players turned in commendable performances. Although it was not a night when a heroic rearguard performance was required (and Hughes’ lapse for the first goal not withstanding) seeing the centre back combination of the Fulham man and Steven Craigan reconstituted was a confidence restoring decision for both team and fans.

I’m loathe to admit it, but George McCartney was also effective, providing strong overlapping runs with Brunt on the left hand side, whilst never neglecting his defensive duties. Gareth McAuley was replaced by Tony Capldi towards the end, but made one particularly good challenge and did nothing to undermine his case for a regular berth in the squad.

In midfield, both Davis and Clingan were tidy, if unspectacular. The mercurial Brunt worked hard and provided the most effective wide outlet, but his delivery was erratic. I’m afraid to say though, that Ivan Sproule’s skills do not match his lightning pace and the game largely passed him by, with the exception of a couple of pacy runs.

Lafferty deserved his man of the match billing up front, holding the ball up well and competing tirelessly despite being perpetually harassed by the French referee and being subjected to a completely unjust booking early on. By his own high standards Healy was merely proficient, but always offered a threat and was closely marshalled by the Swedish defence.

Despite the improved performance, questions will remain about Worthington’s tenure as manager. This morning the BBC have chosen to run with a story about players drinking after the defeat in Latvia (an open secret amongst fans and one which has been repeated constantly over many years). It was this type of unprofessional behaviour which Sanchez had effectively combated and its re-emergence under the new regime remains a concern despite the team rallying and producing a result in Stockholm

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