Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough admitted his players were feeling the punishing schedule as they fell to a 1-0 home defeat to Austria in the Nations League.
Three days after the highs of beating Bosnia and Herzegovina in a penalty shoot-out in Sarajevo to keep hopes of reaching Euro 2020 alive, Michael Gregoritsch’s first-half header saw Northern Ireland fall to sixth defeat in seven Nations League contests.
Austria could have been several goals clear by the break and though Northern Ireland improved in the second half, chances were at a premium as Jonny Evans headed into the arms of Pavao Pervan before substitute Liam Boyce – the hero of Thursday’s shoot-out – fired wide in stoppage time.
It was a flat performance, with Thursday’s 120 minutes of tense, nervous football perhaps telling in Northern Irish legs.
“We don’t want to give ourselves that way out, that excuse…but yes, it was always going to be a big ask,” said Baraclough, who made five changes – including goalkeeper Michael McGovern – to his side.
“I didn’t want to make wholesale changes because if you change eight or nine players you become disjointed. I wanted to keep a core. They said they were ready to go so that’s good enough for me.
“You want to find a way to start the game aggressively because when we’re like that we’re difficult to play against.
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“We knew Austria would come and be aggressive in their press and we didn’t deal with that as well as we can for whatever reason.”
Christoph Baumgartner passed up two golden opportunities for an Austria side who threatened to run away with the game early on.
“Once they got in their rhythm we went back and we conceded territory,” Baraclough said. “We’re better when we go and be aggressive and close people down. We did discuss it as a group at half-time.”
Northern Ireland could be grateful that Austria striker Marko Arnautovic was unavailable to coach Franco Foda, whose only frustration was that the game was not out of sight by the break.
“It was a very good team performance, especially in the first half,” he said. “We showed a very good game, the only problem was not taking chances.
“We could have led two or three-nil. In the second half we lost a bit of control, the counter-attacking game was not accurate enough.
“It was not easy against Northern Ireland but our team showed a very good performance. Our pressing was good, we showed a good counter-attack and we were able to put Northern Ireland under pressure.”
But though this is now Austria’s third win over Northern Ireland in the last two years, Foda backed Baraclough’s side to finish the job in the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign when they face Slovakia at Windsor Park in the play-off final next month.
“I watched the play-off game (against Bosnia),” he said. “It was a very good performance. They could have decided the game earlier, not in the penalty shoot-out. They have a good chance of advancing to the Euro finals.”