NORWAY 1 NORTHERN IRELAND 0
Northern Ireland’s joy at reaching the play-offs was tempered by Chris Brunt’s wild own goal in Norway ensuring the likes of Portugal could stand between them and a place in Russia next summer.
Michael O’Neill’s players knew their place in November’s play-offs was guaranteed less than an hour before kick-off in Oslo as Scotland’s draw with Slovenia guaranteed the Northern Irish one of the play-off berths on offer.
A victory over Norway was still important if they wanted to stand a chance of being seeded for that draw, yet Brunt’s bizarre own goal 19 minutes from time, in which he hacked an attempted left-footed clearance into his net, essentially scuppered those hopes as they lost 1-0.
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Confirmation of their play-off place being sealed before the game at the Ullevaal Stadion got under way contributed to a strange game where Northern Ireland were well below par.
With being seeded still a possibility, O’Neill had said he had no intention of changing his team selection regardless of whether they knew their play-off fate or not.
That meant all six players in his squad who were one booking away from missing the first leg of the play-offs were included in his starting XI.
O’Neill admitted there was “a sense of relief” in the dressing room upon discovering Scotland’s result, sadly it may also have removed the sense of urgency.
Norway would have been ahead at the break had it not been for goalkeeper Michael McGovern, who had gone over 10 hours without conceding an international goal before world champions Germany put three past him on Thursday.
On three occasions Birger Meling attempted to score from a semi-cleared corner and the first was the closest as his controlled volley came through a raft of bodies before McGovern reacted to claw it away.
He was alert too when Fulham’s Stefan Johansen attempted to curl a free-kick under the crossbar in one of the final acts before a scoreless half drew to a close.
One of the half-a-dozen cautioned players O’Neill had risked was withdrawn at the break, though it was not Jonny Evans or Steven Davis but Oliver Norwood.
His replacement George Saville, a midfielder whose Northern Irish eligibility was unknown to O’Neill only a few weeks ago, almost made an immediate impact when winning the ball and coming close to converting Conor Washington’s return pass.
The home side thought they were ahead through Alexander Sorloth, yet the offside flag had already been raised against Tore Reginiussen when the striker turned home a rebound directed to him by McGovern’s save.
The other seven teams that will be in next month’s play-offs will think there is little to fear from Northern Ireland on this evidence, and this was not an accurate reflection of a team that had accrued 19 points prior to this.
That they would add no more to that tally in their 10th game was decided by Brunt’s gaffe.
Sorloth robbed Conor McLaughlin with a challenge that left the Millwall man injured on the turf, but play continued anyway and the ball was worked out to Johansen.
His cross caught out a back-peddling McGovern, yet even when he tipped the ball in the air there were still white shirts ready to remove the danger.
Brunt was one of those and he got his attempted clearance all wrong at the back post as he merely lifted the ball into the roof of his own net with the outside of his left foot, when using his right seemed more obvious.
It was every bit as bizarre as the game-ending moment which saw Alexander Soderlund turn home only for Sorloth to be ruled offside.
Norway thought they had scored but the final whistle went, with their protests the only obvious indication it had finished 1-0 and not 2-0.
It epitomised a strange night, one which ultimately has to be deemed a success for Northern Ireland, even if they are highly unlikely to be seeded for a play-off draw that is set to feature Portugal, Italy and possibly Wales.