Northern Ireland are long awaiting a Nations League win after losing 3-2 at Kosovo, while Spain and Portugal both clinched victories in the competition on Thursday.
Northern Ireland have not won any of their 13 Nations League games and have lost 10. After the disappointing draw against Cyprus at the weekend, they will feel the pressure after another frustrating night of competition.
Despite the nerve-wracking final minutes, hosts Kosovo deservedly emerged victorious. Nine minutes after Steven Davis awkwardly fouled Milot Rashica, they took the lead from a Vedat Muriqi penalty and when Zymer Bytyqi volleyed a Rashica cross in the 19th minute, the visitors had a mountain to climb.
Northern Ireland had not scored in their last three games but Shayne Lavery brought them back into play with a brave close-range header just before half-time. However, that hope was dashed seven minutes into the second half when the impressive Muriqi stayed just on the side to convert a fine Kosovo move.
Daniel Ballard headed in a thrilling finish seven minutes from time but Northern Ireland were unable to equalize and the result leaves them third in Group 2 of League C by just one point, eight points off the leaders Greecewho hit Cyprus 3-0
Baraclough: “A good test for us”
Northern Ireland head coach Ian Baraclough: “Take [Steven Davis] and [Jonny Evans] and Kyle Lafferty out and there aren’t that many caps on this team. Guys who are very inexperienced at this level and need to learn quickly. You ask them to do that.
“We knew how difficult that night was. [Kosovo are] a solid team with good players playing at a really high level for the last three or four years and it was a good test for us. We went and equalized them, created double-digit chances and that bodes well for the future.
“This is a blueprint, this is a big picture plan, and more performances like this will produce results.”
“Northern Ireland is changing”
Former Northern Ireland international Jamie Ward on Sky Sports News:
“Kosovo was a worthy winner. We can look at defense but we had three young defenders in the back four. I would look at the older players to guide them through these games.
“Football in Northern Ireland is going through a period of transition. You can see from the starting line-up that there are different age groups. It’s about finding the balance.
“I wouldn’t worry too much just yet. You gotta let these young lads get through.”
Meanwhile, in League A Group 2, Joao Cancelo and Goncalo Guedes were on target of Portugal comfortable 2-0 victory Czech Republic.
The win means Portugal are two points clear Spain, who moved up to second place in this group thanks to Pablo Sarabia’s first-half goal in a 1-0 away win over Switzerland. Spain had drawn their first two games of this edition of the Nations League, having reached the final last time out.
There was no breakthrough norway 0-0 draw with Slovenia, although the visitors were reduced to 10 men in Oslo in the 63rd minute when Miha Blazic fouled Erling Haaland with a last man tackle. Martin Odegaard hit the bar with the resulting free-kick but there was no escaping the impressive Jan Oblak.
Norway remain leaders in League B Group 4 with a one-point lead Serbia who held onto the punch Sweden 1-0 thanks to Luka Jovic’s goal and maintain their own push for League A qualification.
Further down the ranking Georgia with a 3-0 win against the second in the table in the fight for promotion North Macedonia in League C Group 4, where Gibraltar also deducted a point Bulgaria with a 1:1 draw.
And in League D Group 2, Estonia took their second win in a row thanks to a Henri Anier goal in the 94th minute Maltawho won 2-1.