Ten-man Northern Ireland’s dismal Euro 2024 qualifying campaign continued as they lost 1-0 to Slovenia on another disappointing night at Windsor Park.
Adam Cerin’s superb early free-kick won a scrappy game for the Group H leaders, with teenage midfielder Shea Charles being sent off just before the hour.
Substitute George Saville had two good chances saved in the final 20 minutes as struggling NI fell to their sixth defeat in eight qualifying games.
They beat San Marino 3-0 on Saturday.
Having opened their campaign in March with a 2-0 away victory over the minnows, it means Michael O’Neill’s men go into their final two matches in the group with their only points having come against the world’s lowest-ranked side.
Those remaining games are away to Finland then at home to Denmark, who had to come from behind to beat San Marino 2-1 to stay second in the table.
In-form Slovenia, who had a Benjamin Sesko goal ruled out by VAR, celebrated with their travelling fans at the end of what was their sixth win in eight qualifiers to keep them ahead of the Danes at the summit on goal difference.
Kazakhstan also boosted their hopes of qualification by coming from behind to win 2-1 in Finland in Tuesday night’s other Group H match.
The fifth-minute goal that won Tuesday night’s often disjointed encounter at Windsor Park was exquisite. Northern Ireland left-back Jamal Lewis was, perhaps harshly, adjudged to have fouled Benjamin Sesko 20 yards from goal, and Cerin fired an outstanding right-foot shot that curled around the wall and flew into the top corner.
Northern Ireland went into the match knowing that any hopes of qualifying for next summer’s finals in Germany were long gone, but boosted by Saturday’s comfortable victory over San Marino and determined to finish the group strongly.
It has been a campaign decimated by injuries for O’Neill, many to experienced key players, and their problems continued ahead of kick-off with centre-half Dan Ballard ruled out with a calf injury and Paddy McNair suspended after picking up a booking on Saturday.
NI’s bad luck continued in the 59th minute when fussy Romanian referee István Kovacs showed Southampton 19-year-old Charles a second yellow card for a foul on Andraz Sporar, which meant a red after he had booked him for protesting against the free-kick that led to the Slovenia goal.
O’Neill had sprung a surprise by handing senior international debuts to Bolton Wanderers centre-half Eoin Toal and Kilmarnock midfielder Brad Lyons, and keeping the same front three of Paul Smyth, Josh Magennis and Dale Taylor that started against San Marino.
His side struggled to create chances in the first half but had two good chances to equalise through substitute Saville, who on both times was not able to get enough power in his shot to beat goalkeeper and captain Jan Oblak.
The first was in the 70th minute when Isaac Price went on a fine run down the right and delivered a low cross, with second coming on 83 minutes when fellow sub Conor Washington’s lay-off fell to him in the box but again Oblak was able to save comfortably.
Game fails to flow in tight first half
There was very little between the sides in a tight first-half that failed to fully flow with a lot of stoppages for free-kicks awarded by referee Kovacs, a lot of which were met with criticism from a vocal home support.
The loudest roar of criticism, indeed, came for the decision to give the visitors the fifth-minute free-kick that led to their opening goal. Northern Ireland overplayed the ball at the back and it broke to Sesko, who went down under a challenge by Jamal Lewis that was deemed to be a foul but only after a significant delay.
Conceding so early was a major blow for a Northern Ireland side that had lost five of their seven Group H qualifiers but they collected themselves and responded well to make sure the visitors did not get on top.
While their attacking threat was minimal – an age-old problem that O’Neill is still searching for an answer to – lively winger Smyth did win possession with his press and managed to quickly get a shot away that was well blocked.
From the resulting corner, Southampton midfielder Charles, who at 19 is the only player to start all eight of NI’s qualifiers, caught a low drive well but again the Slovenians got a body in front of it.
Lewis fired a right-footed half-volley just wide for the hosts and visiting winger Petar Stojanović produced an excellent low save from Bailey Peacock-Farrell just before Slovenia thought they had doubled their lead.
It was a mistake by debutant Bolton centre-half Toal, who let a pass inside go through his legs to present Sesko with an easy close-range finish. Much to the relief of Toal, who until that point had looked very composed on his international bow, VAR intervened and the goal was ruled out for offside.
There was a scare for Northern Ireland and manager O’Neill when captain Jonny Evans went down after trying to attack a corner. The Manchester United defender required treatment on the pitch but was able to carry on, and soon proved he was fine with a masterful back-heeled tackle to dispossess Sesko.
- 5EvansBooked at 87mins
- 19CharlesBooked at 58mins
- 8SmythBooked at 60minsSubstituted forCharlesat 63′minutes
- 18LyonsSubstituted forMcMenaminat 86′minutes
- 15ThompsonBooked at 59minsSubstituted forPriceat 63′minutes
- 13TaylorSubstituted forSavilleat 62′minutes
- 21MagennisSubstituted forWashingtonat 45′minutes
- 13JanzaSubstituted forVerbicat 84′minutes
- 21ElsnikBooked at 37mins
- 15MlakarSubstituted forLovricat 75′minutes
- 9SporarBooked at 56minsSubstituted forKurticat 76′minutes
- 5Gorenc Stankovic
Match ends, Northern Ireland 0, Slovenia 1.
Second Half ends, Northern Ireland 0, Slovenia 1.
Attempt saved. Adam Cerin (Slovenia) right footed shot from the left side of the box is saved in the top left corner. Assisted by Benjamin Verbic.
Foul by Benjamin Verbic (Slovenia).
Jonny Evans (Northern Ireland) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Jan Oblak (Slovenia) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Foul by Trai Hume (Northern Ireland).
Corner, Northern Ireland. Conceded by Benjamin Sesko.
Jonny Evans (Northern Ireland) is shown the yellow card.
Substitution, Northern Ireland. Conor McMenamin replaces Brad Lyons.
Corner, Northern Ireland. Conceded by Jaka Bijol.
Attempt saved. Benjamin Sesko (Slovenia) left footed shot from outside the box is saved in the centre of the goal. Assisted by Benjamin Verbic.
Substitution, Slovenia. Benjamin Verbic replaces Erik Janza because of an injury.
Attempt saved. George Saville (Northern Ireland) left footed shot from the centre of the box is saved in the centre of the goal. Assisted by Conor Washington.
Attempt missed. Dion Charles (Northern Ireland) left footed shot from the left side of the box misses to the left. Assisted by Jamal Lewis.
Foul by Benjamin Sesko (Slovenia).
Bailey Peacock-Farrell (Northern Ireland) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Substitution, Slovenia. Jasmin Kurtic replaces Andraz Sporar.
Substitution, Slovenia. Sandi Lovric replaces Jan Mlakar.
Delay over. They are ready to continue.