Michael O’Neill and Northern Ireland are now tantalisingly close to qualifying for Euro 2016. The team took four points out of six over a prolonged weekend of action and sit top of Group F, two points shy of booking a place at the finals tournament in France.On Friday night it looked first like the campaign could stall for the Green and White Army, then it seemed like qualification would be secured as early as Monday. Playing against the Faroe Islands in Torshavn, Northern Ireland made heavy work of their 3-1 victory, after getting off to a perfect start and taking a 1-0 lead in the twelfth minute.
The Islanders capitalised on Stuart Dallas’s defensive howler and equalised before half-time, then, in the second half, O’Neill’s side struggled to break-down a resolute Faroes’ defence. Only when their opponents were reduced to ten men, after goal-scorer Edmundsson had received a second yellow card, did Northern Ireland dominate convincingly. Goals from McAuley and Lafferty finished off a tiring Faroes’ team, who looked increasingly ragged.
The victory allowed Northern Ireland to take charge of the group, one point ahead of unbeaten Romania and four ahead of Hungary. The fans’ attention turned immediately to Monday night’s clash with Hungary, where three points would secure qualification.It wasn’t to be.
Although Northern Ireland dominated territory and enjoyed the greater proportion of chances, the team’s attacks were predictable and didn’t look likely to break down their opponents. A goalkeeping error by Michael McGovern gave Hungary a 74th minute lead and then Chris Baird was sent-off controversially for two yellow cards obtained during the same incident. It looked like the Hungarians had clawed their way back into contention for second place in the group.
Thankfully, deep in stoppage time, Hungary’s goalkeeper parried a Niall McGinn effort into Kyle Lafferty’s path and the Fermanagh man planted a shot into the roof of the net, which means Northern Ireland are still favourites to qualify. It was a hard won point which came at a price. Baird, Lafferty and Conor McLaughlin will be suspended when their team plays Greece next month.The absence of Lafferty is especially worrying. This campaign has propelled him to second place in Northern Ireland’s all-time goal-scorers’ list, behind only David Healy. His goals have largely been responsible for a successful campaign so far and it’s difficult to see who else can offer a similar attacking threat.
Michael O’Neill has chosen to use the Kilmarnock forward Josh Magennis in a supporting role from the substitute’s bench. Magennis offers some physical attributes, but his strike rate is less than prolific. Whoever fills the striker’s position will hope to have more effective support from their fellow forwards in October. On Monday evening the bulk of the attacking threat came from set-pieces rather than creative play.It might seem blatantly obvious, but Northern Ireland’s main challenge against Greece will be to score goals. It’s easy to envisage a 0-0 draw and the team travelling to its final game in Finland still needing another point to ensure qualification. That is a scenario that Michael O’Neill will want to avoid, if possible.
No-one ever said it was supposed to be easy getting to a major tournament finals.