Northern Ireland: Boss Michael O’Neill says team must get back to winning after Slovenia defeat

Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill says he is thinking more about getting back to winning rather than qualifying for Euro 2024.

O’Neill’s side suffered their fourth consecutive Group H defeat by losing 4-2 away to Slovenia.

Now nine points behind group leaders Finland, the loss all-but-ended NI’s chances of qualifying for next summer’s finals.

“I’m not going to stand here and say we can win every game,” O’Neill said.

Northern Ireland are fifth in the group and travel to Kazakhstan next for Sunday’s encounter.

“There is still a hope, of course,” added O’Neill. “We saw Finland go to 12 points so there is a nine-point gap and we will need an incredible run of form to be able to do that.

“At this minute in time it is about trying to get back to winning again, to be honest.

“As we talked about before this game, we had three narrow defeats and tonight we were beaten 4-2 away from home – I don’t think there is any shame in that but we have to just develop the team.

“We are a little bit makeshift in certain areas of the team at the minute due to the injuries that we have, but I think a lot of the young players have shown a lot of positives in this campaign.”

In what was an entertaining encounter in Ljubljana, Northern Ireland fell behind to an early Andraz Sporar opener, but equalised almost immediately through Isaac Price.

A Jonny Evans own goal, when he deflected in Petar Stojanovic’s shot, restored Slovenia’s lead and Benjamin Sesko added a third for the hosts in the 42nd minute.

NI captain Evans responded with a deflected shot, before Sporar grabbed his second in the 56th minute to halt any hope of a comeback.

Conor McMenamin made the most of a starting place to deliver an impressive performance on the flanks as Northern Ireland looked dangerous in attack, but were let down by defensive errors.

“From my point of view the players gave everything they had,” said O’Neill.

“From an attacking point of view it was our best display in the campaign so far with the chances we created and the goals we scored.

“We just need to think about how we defend the game a little bit better, and we will look at that before we go to Kazakhstan.”

Northern Ireland’s injury woes continue

With his squad already badly-hit by injuries going into Thursday night’s encounter, O’Neill suffered further blows as Ciaron Brown was forced off injured in the first half and his replacement, Craig Cathcart, going off in the second.

It could leave Northern Ireland with a shortage in defence for the meeting in Kazakhstan, with Sunderland centre-half Daniel Ballard unable to be included in the matchday squad in Slovenia because of a knock picked up last weekend.

“Brown came off injured and will be an extreme doubt,” explained O’Neill.

“We are actually asking a lot of Craig, really, because he has only just settled his club situation in the last 24 to 48 hours [he completed a move to Belgian side KV Kortrijk], but I thought he came in and did well.

“He was feeling his groin a lot so he just had to manage that.

“With Daniel, we will see how he is in the morning again bit by bit. It is not easy because we have to go and play on an artificial pitch, which is never good for players who are carrying injuries. But we will have a team that will be prepared and ready to play.”

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