Northern Ireland lack guile to break Slovenia's resistance

Northern Ireland at least sent their supporters away believing.

Northern Ireland lack guile to break Slovenia's resistance A late flurry, which included Chris Brunt going agonisingly close, suggested they may still narrow the gap to Slovenia, who are second in Group C, two points ahead.

The nations in between, Serbia and Estonia, shared a draw to leave four sides chasing the runners-up spot, as Italy are now five points clear.

"I think it is pretty much the same," Nigel Worthington, the Northern Ireland manager, said when asked about the standings. "We would have loved to have won and really tightened that gap."

His team have six points with five matches remaining. How many will they need to qualify? "I said before we kicked a ball in this group that everybody was capable of taking points off each other and that hasn't changed," he said. "The game in hand [that Northern Island and Estonia have] will be big for us now."

Worthington was right to be proud of how his players toughed the match out. This allowed them to finish the stronger after Slovenia had dominated for long periods. "It went the distance, we kept our discipline and shape, and there were a lot of immense performances," he said.

Yet the sense remains of a missed opportunity. Northern Ireland's latest stab at reaching the finals of a major tournament for the first time since 1986 began in September with an impressive 1-0 victory that came courtesy of a Corry Evans goal in the reverse fixture.

That was the first time since 1962 they had won on the road in the opening game of qualifying. But after a home draw against Italy, disappointment followed when two points were dropped to the Faroe Islands in October, before Worthington's men went down 2-1 in Serbia last Friday.

The two failings they were culpable of against Solvenia were an inability to deliver a telling corner or free-kick and little strategy beyond the tactic of punting a route-one ball up to Brunt or Warren Feeney in the hope this might breach the visiting defence.

Until near the close when Brunt almost snatched a goal and the substitute Josh McQuoid had a penalty appeal rejected, Slovenia had illustrated the far greater guile. This, ultimately, could prove Northern Ireland's downfall.

Powered by article was written by Jamie Jackson at Windsor Park, for The Guardian on Tuesday 29th March 2011 22.02 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

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