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Key Issues for Northern Ireland After a Terrible 2018
Aaron Rogan
Aaron Rogan
November 18, 2018
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Before becoming a Sports Journalist for Free Super Tips, Aaron spent three years studying Sports Journalism at the University of Sunderland while taking in the Black Cats' 'glory years' under Martin O'Neill. Now back in Northern Ireland he turns niche stats into predictions for FST, while he's one of the few people on this island who is equally comfortable at Windsor Park and the Aviva.

Another added time strike condemned Northern Ireland to a Nations League defeat. For the second time in a month, Austria were able to strike a late blow against Michael O’Neill’s side. That defeat has only added to the issues he faces in the job, and it was a dismal end to a poor year for NI, with relegation to the third tier confirmed.

While they were able to tie down O’Neill to a new deal, he now has a huge job on his hands to transform their fortunes. They have crashed out of the Nations League without a point, and now they won’t face another international until the European Championship qualifiers start in March. With a four month break ahead, here are the issues which the NI manager has to focus on.

Also See: Nations League Betting Tips

Euro Dream Faltering

After a great run at Euro 2016, Northern Ireland were supposed to kick on in international football. However, that tournament and the following World Cup qualifying campaign seem like a last hurrah for that squad. Now, Michael O’Neill needs to bring in a youthful edge to his squad, and drag them forward. The big question is, just how long is that going to take?

The path to Euro 2020 is looking difficult for Northern Ireland right now. They missed the chance to claim a play-off spot, given their dreadful time in the Nations League. They were already down ahead of the meeting with Austria, but they ended up relegated without a point from four games. That obviously dents morale ahead of the Euro 2020 qualifiers, but it makes their route to the tournament that much more difficult.

Michael O’Neill didn’t factor in Euro 2020 seeding when he asked what the point of the Nations League was last month. Now they are guaranteed a difficult path in their attempt to reach the Euros, and they have no play-off spot to fall back on.

Northern Ireland are confirmed to be in Pot 3 for December’s qualifying draw. That means that they’ll face an elite side – with Spain, France and Belgium in the mix. They also run the risk of meeting Germany or Croatia, who could be in the second pot. Austria and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the two sides NI lost home and away to in the Nations League, are also set for Pot 2. Opposition will be tough, and with only the top two qualifying for the Euros, O’Neill’s side could have a mountain to climb.

Also See: Denmark v Republic of Ireland Betting Tips

Goal Shy NI

Relegation on zero points does hint at a string of awful displays from Northern Ireland, but that wasn’t the case. Throughout, we’ve seen solid displays from NI. They’ve played six games in the international breaks during the 2018/19 season, and it’s hard to fault the performances. It started with a strong display that ended in a 2-1 home loss to Bosnia, before beating Israel 3-0 days later.

They were strong in October’s away double header, losing to an added time strike in Austria. The Ulstermen hit the woodwork several times in the trip to Bosnia, but they ultimately lost 2-0. This break brought another great display and no goals, as they dominated neighbours Republic of Ireland in Dublin. Sunday’s defeat means that the Northern Irish have one win in their last seven, a dismal run to end 2018 in relegation and failure.

Really, it’s goals this Northern Ireland set up needs. They’re always at a premium at this level, and O’Neill’s latest squad is made up of six forwards – capped 164 times between them – who have scored a combined 30 goals. Kyle Lafferty has contributed 20 of those, which makes him the country’s second highest scorer of all time. However, his attitude to the national side under O’Neill has led to plenty of run ins, and he’s been dropped from the starting 11. His international isolation may need to end soon, as O’Neill doesn’t have enough options in attack to win games. Given that they want to be a rigid unit who are clinical on the counter, a lack of goals is a serious problem. If they had a finisher in this Nations League group, they wouldn’t be dealing with relegation.

O’Neill’s Morale Mission

The Nations League isn’t that much of a change for international football, but the fact that exists massively effects the calendar. Instead of a 14-month span for the qualifiers, there are five international breaks over eight months which will decide their future. That starts in the next window for internationals, and by this time next year the qualifying process will be over.

While that raises a host of problems – like play-offs for the Euros coming a few months before the tournament – it makes momentum a huge factor. Sides who are on the up in the Nations League, with a strong seeding and a play-off place to fall back on, will come flying into the March matches. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s famed spirit which carried them from a win in Hungary to the finals in France has basically evaporated.

O’Neill isn’t going to spring a clinical forward out of thin air, or dish out senior experience to his young players. However, he can make an impact on the morale in the camp, and that’s something he has to do. He needs to drum up a little confidence for the first squad in March, given the manner in which they started the last two qualifying campaigns. Great starts brought belief, and the Ulstermen didn’t look back. If they’re going to make the Euros again, then the squad need a little luck in December’s draw, a lot more luck in front of goal and the return of that belief.

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