By Ian Parker, PA
Northern Ireland could not produce a performance to match the occasion as Michael O’Neill’s first home game back at Windsor Park ended in a 1-0 defeat to Finland.
After Thursday’s 2-0 win over San Marino, this was a more sobering night against stronger opposition, and a result which deals a significant blow to hopes of reaching Euro 2024 even at this early stage of the campaign.
Northern Ireland appeared off the pace before Benjamin Kallman fired Finland in front with 28 minutes gone, and although the hosts improved while chasing the game, they could not find an equaliser as Dion Charles had a 62nd-minute goal ruled out for handball.
It was hardly the night O’Neill would have been hoping for on his return to a ground where so many memories were made during his first reign.
O’Neill made only one change as Jordan Thompson replaced George Saville, with the manager asking teenagers Shea Charles and Conor Bradley to deliver again following their impressive performances in Serravalle.
That worked insofar that Shea Charles was once again neat and tidy in his use of the ball at the base of midfield, while Bradley was the brightest spark going forward, but there seemed to be a lethargy about Northern Ireland’s display.
They did not truly threaten anything until the 21st minute, with the chance coming from what could have been a costly mistake from captain Craig Cathcart.
📸 Battling away! #GAWA pic.twitter.com/xeqnhvlJGh
— Northern Ireland (@NorthernIreland) March 26, 2023
Instead, the Watford defender recovered from a miscontrol to hook the ball away from Norwich striker Teemu Pukki and set Bradley away down the right. The wing-back, on loan at Bolton from Liverpool, then cut the ball back for club-mate Dion Charles, but Thursday’s goalscorer sent his shot over.
But Northern Ireland were allowing Finland too much time on the ball when defending, and it proved costly as the visitors dampened the Windsor Park mood by taking the lead with their first real sight of goal just before the half-hour mark.
Robin Lod sent in a low ball from the right, Pukki touched it on, and Kallman beat Bailey Peacock-Farrell at the far post.
Peacock-Farrell then saved well to keep out Pukki’s close-range effort before the flag went up as Dan Ballard blocked the follow-up.
Northern Ireland ended the half on top, but Conor Washington’s appeals for handball against Nikolai Alho were ignored after his shot was blocked in the box.
The best move came in the 44th minute when Shea Charles sent Bradley racing away and he rolled the ball through for Dion Charles, but Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky made himself big to keep it out.
There was a blow just a few minutes into the second half as Sunderland defender Ballard was forced off with an injury, meaning a change of shape as Josh Magennis replaced him and 3-5-2 became 4-3-3.
Magennis was quickly into the action, with his backheel freeing Dion Charles only for the striker to overhit a cross towards Washington.
The Wigan striker then freed Jamal Lewis, and as his deep cross was headed back in by Paddy McNair, Magennis arrived but could not keep his shot below the crossbar.
Dion Charles had the ball in the net in the 62nd minute, poking home from a corner, but referee Ivan Kruzliak blew for handball.
That at least energised the crowd but the response from the team was lacking. Cathcart almost played himself into trouble again, recovering to block Finland substitute Marcus Forss. Lod then sent in a dangerous free-kick which Peacock-Farrell parried before Robert Ivanov fired over.
There were late opportunities for Lewis and McNair, but neither could get their shots on target as Northern Ireland mis-fired on O’Neill’s big night.