Well. That’s a hundred or so minutes of your life you won’t get back. Where do we start? Do we want to start? Baraclough made five changes for this game against a ‘bogey nation’ for Northern Ireland, with us managing only one point against the Austrians in four previous meetings since doing the double over them in the Euro 96 qualifiers.
There was never anything to get excited about, save for the opportunity of being one of the lucky 600 who’d been randomly chosen from a maximum 12,000 applications. Just glad I wasn’t one of them.
Baraclough made five changes, following the highs of last Thursday’s penalty shoot-outs in Sarajevo, with the surprise inclusion of Michael McGovern in goal, who hasn’t played first team club football since January. Also starting were Jones and Whyte (fair enough), McLaughlin and, err… Kyle Lafferty, now plying his trade in Serie B with newly promoted Reggina. Still, this was the poxy Nations League. We’d still qualify via the play-offs, just like we will this time round!
Austria had 15 players unavailable, most notably Marko Arnautović, thankfully unable to travel from Shanghai. Austria settled in with ease, especially in midfield where they created several first half chances and made ours look invisible. Gregoritsch looked like a real contender for first scorer early on and came close following a through ball from David Alaba allowing Stefan Ilsanker to head straight at a nervous looking McGovern.
Even Jamal Lewis was clearly not on form, failing to intercept an Alaba cross to give Reinhold Ranftl an opportunity that should have seen advantage Austria. The threats kept coming, so it was only a matter of time. Christoph Baumgartner and Hinteregger had great chances but failed to get any power behind either effort.
Just before the half hour, a Cathcart cock-up of a back pass saw Baumgartner unbelievably bend his gift beyond McGovern’s left post and then, moments later, heading into the stands with what was, again, a golden opportunity.
It was inevitable we weren’t going to make it to the break on a level pegging. David Alaba had been dominant and lively on the left all half, eventually providing Hinteregger a perfect opportunity to cross on to the head of Gregoritsch who finally saw McGovern beaten. Well beaten.
Few positives could be taken from this half. Jones looked spritely and determined for the first quarter, combining well with Gavin Whyte, but neither were really able to run at the Austrian defence as the visitors dominated possession.
Northern Ireland looked a tad more determined at the start of the second period, playing some half decent football without managing to create anything by way of real chances. In fact, it was not until the 68th minute when a cross from McNair saw Jonny Evans head straight into the arms of Pavao Pervan, starting only his third senior game for the Austrians. That was our only shot on target.
On came Washington, Boycie and Big Josh to try and sort this mess out but to no avail. The only real opportunity fell to the balded one in injury time, when a quick free kick saw a good equalising opportunity flash past the post. And that was that.
A deserved win for the visitors in a competition that has only seen us glean a single point out of a possible 21. Overall, a piss-poor performance especially looking at the stats, meaning Northern Ireland remain bottom of the group.
The chances of our fortunes changing for Wednesday’s trip to Oslo do not bode particularly well. There’s a general consensus among fans and players that this UEFA Nations League malarkey is just a sponsorship platform to line a few pockets in Switzerland, but we won’t be grumbling it leads us to the World Cup (as unlikely as that is looking right now). The real focus for this international window was always on the play-off final against Slovakia next month. Let’s hope we have something to celebrate, even if we can’t be there.
Final Score: Northern Ireland 0-1 Austria
McGovern, McLaughlin, Cathcart, J. Evans, Lewis, Davis (C. Evans 73), Dallas (Thompson 73), Whyte (Boyce 83), NcNair (Magennis 83), Jones, Lafferty (Washington 61)
Subs not used: Peacock-Farrell, McGinn, Ballard, Smith, Carson, Ferguson, Flanagan
Pervan, Lainer, Dragović, Hinteregger, Alaba, Ranftl (Trimmel 73), Ilsanker, Baumgartlinger, Baumgartner, Gregoritsch (Grbić 80), Schlager
Subs not used: Schaub, Holzhauser, Kalajdžić, Posch, Onisiwo, Sienbenhandl, Grillitsch, Schopf, Ullman, Lindner