Northern Ireland’s poor Nations League form continued as a toothless performance saw them lose 1-0 to Austria at Windsor Park.
The visitors were dominant throughout and could have been three goals up before Michael Gregoritsch’s 42nd-minute winner.
The 600 home supporters created a good atmosphere in the south Belfast stadium despite the hosts’ poor showing.
Substitute Liam Boyce nearly grabbed a draw for NI in injury time but his fine strike from a well-worked set-piece went just wide.
Ian Baraclough’s men are away to Norway in their next Nations League outing on Wednesday.
The loss in Belfast came three days after NI secured a dramatic penalty shoot-out victory over Bosnia in Thursday’s Euro 2020 play-off semi-final in Sarajevo.
Having drawn with Romania before getting hammered by Norway in their opening two League B Group One games in September, NI are now bottom of the group after three matches.
It means Northern Ireland have now won just one point in seven Nations League matches since the competition was launched in autumn 2018.
Gregoritsch’s goal arrived three minutes before the break after good work on the left by the lively David Alaba. He pulled it back to Martin Hinteregger and his cross was headed home past Michael McGovern, who started in goal in place of Bailey Peacock-Farrell.
In Sunday’s other game in the group, Norway overwhelmed Romania in a 4-0 win.
Supporters on song as dominant Austria waste chances
As off the pace as Northern Ireland looked on the pitch, the 600 home supporters spread out across the Windsor Park stands did all they could to encourage Baraclough’s men.
Having won the chance to attend through an Irish FA ticket ballot, they were in full voice from moments before kick-off. For the first half hour in particular, and led as ever by the Kop Stand, they created a decent atmosphere in a stadium that usually houses a bouncing 18,000-strong crowd.
Unfortunately for Ian Baraclough, it did not have the desired effect as his players, just three days after that euphoric win over Bosnia, could not match the visitors’ ability to keep the ball.
Indeed, they were lucky to go in at half-time only one goal down as Austria wasted three fantastic chances to take the lead before Gregoritsch’s 42nd-minute header.
Christoph was the biggest culprit, looking over casual and curling wide when clean through and then firing over from close-range, with Martin Hinteregger failing to score from an easy headed chance earlier in the half.
Attacking line-up fails to fire
Pacy wingers Jordan Jones and Gavin Whyte came off the bench to positively impact the victory over Bosnia, and it looked like a sign of attacking intent when they both appeared in the Northern Ireland starting line-up.
Jones looked lively for the first 10 minutes and Whyte combined occasionally down the right with Conor McLaughlin, but neither were able to get the ball at their feet and run at the Austrian defence as the visitors dominated possession.
Lafferty, who did his job in Sarajevo by scoring a penalty in the shoot-out after coming off the bench, was also handed a start by Baraclough.
However, an ineffective performance from the Reggina man meant he never looked like ending an international goal drought during play that stretches back to November 2016.
Lafferty was replaced by Washington midway through the second half but he failed to get into the game, while Stuart Dallas, moved into midfield after an outstanding full-back performance on Thursday night, spent most of the night trying to close the Austrians down along with captain Steven Davis and Paddy McNair.
Jonny Evans, who played the full 90 minutes at centre-half, forced a save from Pavao Pervan with a header in the second half, but it was Boyce’s excellent strike late on that had the small crowd on their feet.
Cause for concern but Euros still the main goal
While there were five personnel changes in the starting line-up from Sarajevo, those players that came in all have significant international experience.
It must have concerned Baraclough how totally dominant in possession Austria were from the start of the match, especially in midfield, where NI’s trio of Davis, McNair and Dallas were not able to get a foothold in the game.
The new manager will also be hoping that Newcastle left-back Jamal Lewis, who has impressed since his international debut in this competition two years ago, does not have too many nights in a Northern Ireland shirt as below par as he was.
It was also worryingly evident that NI went 68 minutes without registering a single effort on goal until Evans’ header, something that has rarely happened at Windsor in recent years, even against teams ranked much higher than Austria.
That all said, it could be argued that a flat performance was perhaps inevitable after how draining the penalties win over Bosnia must have been for the players – mentally as well as physically.
Baraclough will now have to think about he deploys his squad for Wednesday’s trip to Oslo, and will be conscious of the need to rest some players while building a positive momentum ahead of next month’s Euro 2020 play-off final against Slovakia in Belfast.
Qualifying for the Euros will have been front and centre of the manager’s remit when he got the job in June, and plotting a course to next summer’s rescheduled finals will no dominate his short and longer-term planning.
- 2McLaughlinBooked at 78mins
- 8DavisSubstituted forEvansat 73′minutes
- 14DallasSubstituted forThompsonat 73′minutesBooked at 86mins
- 18WhyteSubstituted forBoyceat 84′minutes
- 17McNairSubstituted forMagennisat 83′minutes
- 10LaffertySubstituted forWashingtonat 61′minutes
- 15RanftlSubstituted forTrimmelat 73′minutes
- 11GregoritschSubstituted forGrbicat 80′minutes
- 23SchlagerBooked at 90mins
- Petr Ardeleanu
Match ends, Northern Ireland 0, Austria 1.
Second Half ends, Northern Ireland 0, Austria 1.
Attempt missed. Liam Boyce (Northern Ireland) right footed shot from the right side of the box is close, but misses to the left. Assisted by Jordan Thompson following a set piece situation.
Xaver Schlager (Austria) is shown the yellow card for a bad foul.
Foul by Xaver Schlager (Austria).
Jordan Thompson (Northern Ireland) wins a free kick on the right wing.
Jordan Thompson (Northern Ireland) is shown the yellow card for a bad foul.
Xaver Schlager (Austria) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Foul by Jordan Thompson (Northern Ireland).
Foul by Xaver Schlager (Austria).
Jonny Evans (Northern Ireland) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Substitution, Northern Ireland. Liam Boyce replaces Gavin Whyte.
Substitution, Northern Ireland. Josh Magennis replaces Patrick McNair.
Stefan Ilsanker (Austria) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Foul by Corry Evans (Northern Ireland).
Substitution, Austria. Adrian Grbic replaces Michael Gregoritsch.
Conor McLaughlin (Northern Ireland) is shown the yellow card for a bad foul.
Christoph Baumgartner (Austria) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Foul by Conor McLaughlin (Northern Ireland).
Foul by Stefan Lainer (Austria).