Michael O’Neill bemoans Northern Ireland defending in costly defeat to Slovenia

By Sports Desk September 07, 2023

Michael O’Neill admitted poor defending cost Northern Ireland dear in a damaging 4-2 defeat to Slovenia but it was another game of fine margins in Ljubljana.

Northern Ireland ended the night having created more chances than their hosts but on the wrong end of the scoreline as they struggled to contain Slovenia’s strike pairing of Benjamin Sesko and Andraz Sporar.

Isaac Price’s first international goal had cancelled out Sporar’s third-minute strike but all too quickly Northern Ireland were behind again when Petar Stojanovic’s strike deflected off Jonny Evans in the 17th minute, with Sesko giving Slovenia breathing space before the break.

Although Evans got O’Neill’s side back into it in the 53rd minute, almost immediately Sporar settled it to deliver what is surely a fatal blow to Northern Ireland’s hopes of progressing from Group H as they lost for a fourth straight match.

But although they conceded four, O’Neill could be happy with the attacking intent showed by his side, with Conor McMenamin carrying the threat after getting the nod on the right wing.

“It was a game full of incident clearly, six goals,” O’Neill said. “I thought we played very well in the game. We defended poorly at times, we struggled to deal with Sesko and Sporar who we knew would be the biggest threat and they proved to be that.

“But we did a lot of good things in the game. Some of the attacking play was very very good, we created a lot of chances and that was the best attacking play we’ve had in the campaign so far. Playing with two wingers helped us with the chances we created.

“The most disappointing thing in the game is how we managed the period in the game from 1-1 to 2-1, I think that was the period where we needed to be stable and we weren’t. Also from 3-2 to 4-2, we conceded too early after the game went to 3-2.

“We were trying to find a way back in the last 15 minutes and asked some questions and again the goalkeeper makes two or three good saves. It was an open game. I was disappointed to lose the game but pleased with a lot of aspects, some of the younger players were terrific.”

There were late chances for McMenamin and substitutes Josh Magennis and Paul Smyth, but although Northern Ireland had more possession and more chances than their hosts, they lacked the sort of firepower offered by RB Leipzig’s Sesko and Sporar of Panathinaikos.

After coming out on the wrong end of three consecutive 1-0 defeats, this was a very different result, but a similar story of Northern Ireland not being outplayed.

“The biggest difference in the game was probably the front two,” O’Neill said. “It’s a big part of the team. I don’t think we saw a lot between the teams on the night but they were clinical.

“Both Sorpar and Sesko were a threat all night. Some of our players were excellent as well and the chances we created, we’re probably disappointed we only scored twice in the game. We have to accept the defeat and move on.”

McMenamin was the brightest spark, with the 28-year-old showing the confidence gained from his summer move from Glentoran to St Mirren.

“Conor had a great game, he was very, very positive from the outset,” O’Neill said. “He’s a player who has come late to international football, late to professional football.

“In the summer he got his first move into the Scottish Premiership and I think he’s made great strides in the space of six to eight weeks he’s been in the there so there’s a lot more in Conor.”

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