Windsor Park, October 18, 2023 – Northern Ireland’s Euro 2024 qualification campaign took a gloomy turn as they faced Slovenia with only ten players, ultimately losing 1-0 in a disappointing match at Windsor Park.
A stunning early free-kick by Adam Cerin proved to be the match-winner for the Group H leaders, even though they played with ten men after Shea Charles was sent off shortly before the end of the game.
Substitute George Saville had two promising opportunities in the final 20 minutes, but the Slovenian goalkeeper denied both chances, leading to Northern Ireland’s sixth defeat in eight qualification matches.
They had previously defeated San Marino 3-0 on Saturday.
Starting their campaign in March with a 2-0 away win against the lower-ranked team, this means that Michael O’Neill’s team has earned their only points against the lowest-ranked team in the world.
Their remaining matches will be away to Finland and at home against Denmark, who had to overcome difficulties to secure a 2-1 victory over San Marino, keeping them in the second position in the table.
In-form Slovenia, who had a Benjamin Sesko goal disallowed by the video assistant referee (VAR), celebrated their sixth win in eight qualification games, maintaining their top spot on goal difference over Denmark.
Kazakhstan also boosted their hopes for qualification by coming from behind to win 2-1 against Finland in Tuesday night’s other Group H match.
The fifth-minute goal was the deciding factor in a frequently disjointed match at Windsor Park. Northern Ireland’s left-back Jamal Lewis was deemed to have committed a foul on Sesko, 20 yards from goal, resulting in Cerin’s exceptional right-footed shot that curled around the wall and found the top corner of the net.
Northern Ireland entered the match knowing that their hopes of qualifying for the Euro 2024 finals in Germany were long gone. However, they were encouraged by their comfortable victory over San Marino on Saturday and were determined to finish the group stage on a positive note.
O’Neill’s team had been plagued by injuries throughout the campaign, particularly among experienced key players, and their problems continued before kick-off as center-back Dan Ballard was ruled out with a calf injury, and Paddy McNair was suspended after receiving a yellow card on Saturday.
Northern Ireland’s bad luck continued in the 59th minute when the referee from Romania, Istvan Kovacs, showed a second yellow card to 19-year-old Southampton midfielder Shea Charles for a foul on Andraz Sporar, resulting in a red card after previously booking him for protesting against the free-kick that led to Slovenia’s goal.
O’Neill surprised everyone by giving senior international debuts to Bolton Wanderers center-back Eoin Toal and Kilmarnock midfielder Brad Lyons, while keeping the same front three of Paul Smyth, Josh Magennis, and Dale Taylor that started against San Marino.
Their struggle to create chances in the first half continued, but they had two excellent opportunities to equalize through substitute Saville. However, on both occasions, he couldn’t muster enough power in his shots to beat goalkeeper and captain Jan Oblak.
The first opportunity came in the 70th minute when Isaac Price embarked on a fine run down the right and delivered a low cross. The second chance arrived in the 83rd minute when a lay-off from fellow substitute Conor Washington fell to Saville in the box, but again, Oblak comfortably made the save.
The tightly contested first half saw little difference between the two teams. However, it was marred by numerous stoppages for free-kicks awarded by referee Kovacs, many of which were met with criticism from the vocal home supporters.
The loudest protests were directed at the decision to award the visitors a free-kick in the fifth minute that led to their opening goal. Northern Ireland overplayed the ball at the back, and Sesko went down under a challenge from Jamal Lewis, which was ultimately deemed a foul after a significant delay.
Conceding a goal so early was a major setback for Northern Ireland, who had lost five of their seven Group H qualifiers. Nevertheless, they regrouped and responded well to ensure Slovenia did not gain the upper hand.
While their attacking threat remained minimal, an ongoing issue that O’Neill is still trying to address, lively winger Smyth managed to win possession with his pressing and quickly took a shot, but it was well blocked.
In the resulting corner, 19-year-old Southampton midfielder Charles, the only player to start all eight of Northern Ireland’s qualifiers, struck a low shot well, but again, the Slovenians managed to block it.
Lewis fired a right-footed half-volley just wide for the hosts, and visiting winger Petar Stojanovic produced an excellent low save from Bailey Peacock-Farrell just before Slovenia thought they had doubled their lead.x x x x x x x x
There was a moment of concern for Northern Ireland and manager O’Neill when captain Jonny Evans went down after attempting to attack a corner. The Manchester United defender received on-field treatment but was able to continue and soon demonstrated his fitness with a masterful back-heeled tackle to dispossess Sesko.