Having predicted possible disappointment in Bratislava, I should not have felt so devastated after Northern Ireland lost 2-1 in their opening World Cup qualifying match against Slovakia. This defeat was particularly galling, however, because the Slovakians were eminently beatable and Nigel Worthington’s men’s display was blighted by below par performances, lapses in concentration, ill discipline and basic tactical errors from the manager.
I expressed the opinion on Friday that Worthington had two likely formations available to him, and of these two formations, 4-5-1 would eliminate any realistic possibility of returning to Belfast with 3 points. I argued strongly that a second striker would be needed in order to support David Healy and prevent the Killyleagh man becoming isolated and ineffective. Our hapless supremo did select a second striker (Paterson), but unfathomably decided to play him on the left wing, thus ensuring that not only did Northern Ireland line up 4-5-1, but they also did so without a natural wide player on the left hand side of midfield.
Nevertheless, we started the game strongly, dominating possession for the first 15 minutes. Slovakia are not a good team. Gradually, though, tactical deficiencies became evident. The home side soon got to grips with Healy and our midfield began to get caught on the ball as they struggled to find an outlet. Long balls to Healy were being easily cut out by Martin Skrtl and Paterson and Gillespie failed to provide tenable wide options.
Gillespie personified a frustrating evening for Northern Ireland. With 2 goals in 80 odd performances, the winger is an exasperating waste of talent. Although he has at times tortured full backs with his pace and delivery, more often than not his ill-discipline and propensity to be easily discouraged are liabilities when things aren’t going well. After one promising cross in the opening five minutes, Gillespie began to give the ball away. He continued proffering it to the Slovaks throughout the first half and his efforts to win it back became ever more desultory. Then, within two minutes of the restart, he gave a needless free kick away on the left touchline. Skrtl nodded in the resultant cross, shrugging off a poor challenge from Jonny Evans. It was a relief when Gillespie limped from the pitch minutes later. Such an able and experienced player should not be a burden to his teammates. He needs to take a long hard look at himself.
In fairness, Gillespie had long since departede when Northern Ireland’s worst lapse of concentration occurred. After Baird’s shot had been blatantly handled in the box, the referee scandalously declined the penalty. Rather than maintaining their concentration, the Northern Ireland players argued, gave away a free kick and George McCartney let his opponent get between him and the goal. An unforgivably stupid goal to give away.
After Chris Brunt replaced Paterson and provided some genuine width Northern Ireland began to look more threatening. An own goal resulting from a dangerous cross from Brunt gave us some hope at the end. By this stage, of course, we’d reverted to 4-4-2.
Slovakia were a little, but not much, better than Latvia and Iceland (who inflicted away defeats which killed our chances for qualifying for Euro 2008), but this defeat was of a similar magnitude. Now we’re left with the unenviable task of HAVING to defeat the Czechs on Wednesday.