Northern Ireland 1 Slovakia 2: Hosts suffer heartbreak with extra-time defeat ending Euros dream

NORTHERN IRELAND suffered lockdown and out in a double blow.

Not only has their Euro 2020 dream died but the pubs are also staying shut.

Northern Ireland was due to see month-long Covid restrictions eased today but the government announced an extension just hours before kick off.

In this part of the world it’s debatable which is worse – no boozers or no football adventure next summer with a guaranteed match against glamorous Spain.

Instead all that lingers this morning is the bitter aftertaste of heartbreak for the second successive time in the play-offs.

In 2018 it was a dodgy refereeing decision against Switzerland. Last night it was a cock up between Middesbrough’s George Saville and Leicester’s Jonny Evans which did the damage.

And Evans later became a pain in the bum for his own team when a shot from sub Michal Duns cannoned off his rear end and into the net for the decisive second goal in the second half of extra time.

To stem the spread of coronavirus, Northern Ireland’s rulers are keeping the hospitality sector under lock and key for a further seven days at least.

But Saville and Evans gifted the unimpressive Slovaks the goals which put them into Euro 2021 at the expense of a home nation.

Just 17 minutes into a winner-takes-all match with 1,060 fans allowed into Windsor Park and under little pressure, he took his eye off his team-mate for a fatal split second.

A back header from inside the centre circle, intended for team-mate Evans instead drifted the wrong side of his team-mate.

And there was no way the 32-year-old was going to catch Slovakia forward Juraj Kucka, who burst free before planting a shot into the bottom corner of the net.

Saville held his head in his hands in full acknowledgement of his blunder which ultimately cost his country another chance to rub shoulders with the giants of international football.

Boss Ian Baraclough threw everything he had at the opposition to force a breakthrough. And he got one when Paddy McNair’s bulldozing run down the right forced Milan Skriniar to put the ball in his own net in the 88th minute.

It sent the match into extra time to make Northern Ireland’s efforts look the more gutsy.

But it is the glaring lack of a convincing goalscorer that boss Baraclough needs to address if he is to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor Michael O’Neill, who led this small country to Euro 2016.

Even against a Slovakia team which had kept only three clean sheets in the previous 20 games prior to this match, there were only a few genuine chances to score.

Charlton’s Conor Washington shot straight at the keeper from inside the box in the second half, McNair went faintly close with a header inside the first ten minutes.

Sub striker Kyle Lafferty hit the post but Northern Ireland could not get over the line and now must raise themselves to face Austria on Sunday in the Nations League – in which they have yet to win a game.

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