Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill declared his side’s South American tour a big success despite them slipping to a second defeat as Chile proved too strong.
On paper, last week’s 1-0 loss in Uruguay and Wednesday night’s 2-0 reverse in Valparaiso are hardly cause for celebration, but with both opponents fine-tuning ahead of the World Cup, losses were always considered likely.
O’Neill was primarily focused on the chance to work with his side for an extended period and building team spirit.
To see an inexperienced side maintain parity with more illustrious rivals for 62 minutes and 80 minutes, respectively, was an unexpected bonus.
“I’ve got a huge amount more than I anticipated from the trip,” O’Neill said after watching late goals from Eduardo Vargas and Mauricio Pinilla end any hopes of a battling draw.
“I’d have to say, in all honesty, it’s been the best 10 days I’ve had in the job and I’ve just told the players that.
“They’ve been a joy to work with and in terms of their application, even the lads who didn’t get the chance. It’s been a really positive atmosphere.
“Steven Davis and Aaron Hughes have both said it’s as good a trip as they’ve been on and given they’ve got 150 caps between them that is testament to it.
“The bonding that has gone on has been really good, with the younger players bringing that freshness and the older players responding to that.”
O’Neill believes Chile’s imminent appearance in Brazil meant the cards were stacked against his side from the offset, but he felt hard done to by an opening goal that appeared marginally offside.
“In the first half I thought we were excellent but in the second half it was a case of fatigue. We’re a month out of our season going against a team heading to the World Cup,” he said.
“They were also able to bring real quality on in terms of Alexis Sanchez, Eduardo Vargas and Arturo Vidal.
“But it’s very difficult when you work as hard as we worked through the game to lose a goal of that nature. It shouldn’t have counted and ultimately it was the turning factor in the game.”
Davis was a contender for man-of-the-match honours as he turned in an all-energy performance in the middle of the park.
Southampton’s former Rangers midfielder also excelled in Montevideo, leaving O’Neill glowing in his praise.
“Steven in particular over the two games has been absolutely phenomenal. He could play for either Uruguay or Chile quite easily,” said O’Neill.
“His level of ability, to stay on the ball, was exceptional. The rest of the players get belief from that.
“Steven has found a new gear this year in terms of fitness. He’s embraced the challenge of playing in the Premier League as opposed to the SPL.
“It maybe took him a little bit of time to adjust from Scotland back to the Premier League but what he’s shown in these games is that against world-class players he does not look out of place.”