O'Neill suffers defeat in first game in charge of Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland 0 Norway 3
Michael O’Neill’s first match in charge of Northern Ireland ended in defeat as a deflected opener and two late goals gave Norway a comfortable victory at Windsor Park.
Things started brightly enough, with the hosts having the best of the first period only to go behind a minute before the break after Sammy Clingan diverted Havard Nordtveit’s shot past Lee Camp.
Tarik Elyounoussi then doubled the winning margin with a neat shot on the turn and Espen Ruud’s volley sealed it in added time.
O’Neill’s first teamsheet included recalled duo Dean Shiels and Shane Ferguson, both absent from the national set-up for the last two years of Nigel Worthington’s tenure.
There was also a change at the back, with Jonny Evans given the chance to establish himself in his preferred centre-back position in place of Gareth McAuley, who was shifted to right-back.
David Healy started on the bench but with 17 minutes left became his country’s most capped outfield player – cap number 92 taking him clear of Mal Donaghy.
Northern Ireland’s first attack, in the second minute, saw full-back Ryan McGivern break down the left and fire a powerful effort at goal.
Goalkeeper Rune Jarstein reacted well to tip it over the crossbar only for Shiels to produce a tame header from the resulting corner.
Ferguson was next to try his luck down the left and his deflected cross just evaded Martin Paterson on the six-yard line.
The lively start found the fans in noticeably better voice than they had been at the end of the Worthington era, with O’Neill’s arrival in the technical area warmly welcomed.
Clingan was using the ball well in midfield, freeing Ferguson again as a quick Northern Ireland break again stretched the visiting defence.
Norway were content to counter-attack in the opening 20 minutes, but too often left Mohammed Abdellaoue isolated up front.
Northern Ireland endured a nervy moment after 25 minutes, a weak defensive header from Ferguson handing Norway a clear opportunity on the right-hand side of the penalty area.
Luckily, it fell to full-back Tom Hogli, who blazed over.
Moments later Northern Ireland had the best chance so far.
Ferguson’s cross was poorly dealt with, leading to a frenetic couple of seconds that saw Steven Davis, Paterson and McAuley all try to force the ball over the line from close range.
Davis was closest to success, with McAuley’s sliced effort ending the danger.
There was a warning for the home side too when Erik Huseklepp worked Camp at the near post.
John Arne Riise twice looked primed for spectacular volleys but made negligible contact with both attempts.
Norway did take the lead a minute before the break when Aaron Hughes half-cleared a corner as far as Nordtveit, whose low shot beat Camp via the unfortunate Clingan.
O’Neill made two changes at the interval, Grant McCann on for Corry Evans and Michael Duff ending a four-year exile in place of Hughes.
McCann was quick to make an impression, winning the ball in midfield, carrying it 10 yards and forcing a fingertip save from 25 yards.
At the other end Camp fumbled Riise’s near-post effort but was lucky to see Daniel Braaten botch the rebound.
Shiels was lively in his role linking midfield and attack and his cross on the hour allowed Davis a header at goal.
A clever through ball from McGivern then found Shiels clear of his man inside the area but a crucial saving tackle snuffed out the danger.
With a little over 20 minutes remaining, O’Neill turned to winger Paddy McCourt, who came on for the impressive Ferguson.
The Celtic man was watched from the stands by club boss Neil Lennon, returning to the ground where he was once barracked by his own fans on international duty.
McCourt was quick to make an impact too, twice beating his man on the left and sending in testing crosses.
Healy, meanwhile, had been left waiting long enough for his record-breaking appearance and he was next off the bench to replace Paterson.
The Rangers striker was unable to mark the occasion with a goal but Norway had time for two more.
Elyounoussi extended the visitors’ lead three minutes from time when he beat Camp at the near post, before Ruud’s superb stoppage-time volley made it 3-0 despite the Nottingham Forest keeper getting a strong hand to it.
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