Northern Ireland suffer home defeat to Austria

Northern Ireland's Craig Cathcart as Austria's Michael Gregoritsch celebrates scoring during Sunday's UEFA Nations League game at Windsor Park, Belfast. Credit: Presseye

Northern Ireland slumped to a 1-0 home defeat to Austria in their Nations League match in Belfast on Sunday night.

Three days after the highs of Thursday's dramatic penalty shoot-out win over Bosnia and Herzegovina to keep alive hopes of reaching Euro 2020 next summer, Northern Ireland's Nations League woes continued as they lost for the sixth time in seven matches in this competition.

The presence of 600 members of the Green and White Army inside Windsor Park could not rouse Northern Ireland as they were comfortably outplayed by the hosts, who won through Michael Gregoritsch's header and might have scored many more on the night.

A limited number of Northern Ireland fans were at the match who were practising social distance due to Covid-19 restrictions. Credit: Presseye

With 120 minutes of tense, nervous football in the legs from Thursday, Baraclough looked to freshen up his side with five changes, including Kyle Lafferty, Jordan Jones and Gavin Whyte in attack and a rare start for Michael McGovern in goal.

But they were second best to Austria almost throughout, and were ultimately grateful that Marko Arnautovic had not been able to travel from Shanghai to play in this international window as Franco Foda's side passed up several chances to inflict a more convincing defeat.

Austria were on top almost immediately as they bossed midfield and created chances throughout the first half.

Gregoritsch just missed a through ball from David Alaba before Stefan Ilsanker then headed straight at Michael McGovern, playing only his second game for club or country in 12 months.

When Jamal Lewis failed to cut out a deep Alaba cross, Reinhold Ranftl could not adjust his feet in time.

The let-offs kept coming for the hosts as Christoph Baumgartner poked a tame shot at McGovern from close range before Martin Hinteregger failed to get any power on his header from a corner.

The best chance of all came just before the half hour when Craig Cathcart's tame back pass was snapped up by Baumgartner but, once through on goal, he bent his shot beyond the far post.

Northern Ireland's Craig Cathcart and Austria Christoph Baumgartner during Sunday night's UEFA Nations League match at Windsor Park. Credit: Presseye

Baumgartner missed another golden chance moments later when he sent Gregoritsch's cushioned header high into the socially-distanced stands.

But the almost relentless pressure told just before the break when Hinteregger's sweeping cross from the left found Gregoritsch who headed past McGovern with ease.

Northern Ireland responded after the break, playing their brightest football in the opening 20 minutes of the second half, but they could not convert it into chances.

The first real sight of goal did not come until the 68th minute when Jonny Evans got a glancing header on to Paddy McNair's cross, but directed it straight at Pavao Pervan.

Northern Ireland's Jonny Evans during Sundays UEFA Nations League game at Windsor Park, Belfast. Credit: Presseye

Baraclough sent on Conor Washington, Liam Boyce and Josh Magennis in the latter stages but service to the front men did not improve.

The only opening came in stoppage time when a quick free-kick freed Boyce, but the hero of Thursday's shoot-out fired narrowly wide.

Defeat means Northern Ireland remain without a win in the short history of this competition, with Austria and Bosnia the teams that beat them home and away two years ago before last month's 1-1 draw in Romania earned them their only point to date.

The odds on their fortunes changing in Wednesday's trip to Oslo to face Norway, 5-1 winners in Belfast last month, do not look favourable.

The focus for this window was always on the Bosnia match but this was still a disappointing night after the highs of Thursday.

Speaking following the defeat, manager Baraclough admitted fatigue could have caught up with his players following their win over Bosnia and Herzegovina.

"It's tough to go on and replicate that again, emotionally, mentally it's tough as well. There's a big high, the travel, come back and then it's back into these games very quickly," he said.

"But we have to find a way of working through that because we want to get to the Euros, and if we do then there'll be games coming thick and fast. "So we need to find a way of being better in the first half and not getting disconcerted if things don't come off, and have the bravery to go and get on the ball and receive in maybe tight areas. I'm learning about the team still."