Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough insisted his side are still making progress but there was no denying Tuesday’s 3-1 defeat to Greece in Athens was a step backwards.
After the joy of Josh Magennis’ stoppage-time winner against Kosovo on Saturday there was the familiar feeling of a Nations League defeat at the Georgios Kamaras Stadium as second-half goals from Giorgos Masouras and Petros Mantalos sunk Northern Ireland.
Shayne Lavery had earlier equalised four minutes after Dimitris Pelkas took advantage of Bailey Peacock-Farrell colliding with Paddy McNair to put Greece in front.
Kosovo’s 5-1 win over Cyprus spared Baraclough’s men the prospect of a relegation play-off to avoid dropping into the lowest tier of this competition, but defeat still leaves them facing a drop down the rankings and a daunting draw for Euro 2024 qualifying.
The final whistle was greeted with boos from the 1,000-strong travelling Green and White Army, but although Baraclough will accept five points from 18 is not good enough in a group Northern Ireland were expected to challenge in, he is still certain his side are making progress
“Of course they’re going to be frustrated, we’ve lost a game,” he said of the supporters. “You send them home happy at the weekend, this time we couldn’t salvage anything and they’ve shown their frustrations because they’ve seen the team lose.
“We were better in this window than we were in June. There was a lot of frustration in June. We were inexperienced. We’ve been better in these two games. We would have liked to have stayed unbeaten in these two games but it wasn’t to be.
“We know when we’ve got more experience squad around one or two of the youngsters we are better, we are improving. We have to get better, clearly, but that takes time.”
Too often in the match Northern Ireland were guilty of misplaced passes and sloppy play.
Although a midfield of Steven Davis, Ali McCann and George Saville – the latter replacing Jordan Thompson in the early moments of the match after the Stoke man took a blow to the head – did well at winning the ball, all too often it was given straight back.
Attempts to play out from the back looked dangerous too, leading to a couple of chances for Anastasios Bakasetas in the first half before he set up Masouras for the second from a Davis turnover 10 minutes into the second half.
“I was pleased with the first half, I thought our shape was very good out of possession, we moved the ball well and created one or two things,” Baraclough said.
“We fell behind but we showed good character to come back, Shayne got across his man and it was an excellent goal.
“At half-time we looked comfortable, they’d not really opened us up but in the second half we were frustrated, we couldn’t get our connections, passes were going astray and we weren’t getting up the thirds.
“We gave the ball away in an area where they could open us up with one pass. That’s a fine balance with playing out from the back.
“We were a little bit frustrated, we got a little bit disjointed shape-wise, and that can happen when people are trying to chase the game but it’s something we can learn from.”
The fall down the rankings for the Euro 2024 qualifying draw could yet prove costly, but Baraclough pointed to the fact that Northern Ireland started the successful road to Euro 2016 in pot five as well.
“Can lightning strike twice?” he said. “We’ll have to see.”