Northern Ireland geared up for next weekend’s World Cup qualifier in Azerbaijan by defeating New Zealand 1-0 in a friendly on Friday evening.
Liam Boyce’s sixth-minute strike, his first in international football, separated the sides in a contest which served as a warm-up for both nations ahead of more important fixtures later this month.
Here we assesses what Michael O’Neill will have determined after events in Belfast.
1. Boyce can be the main main in Baku
Twelve months ago there was no place in Northern Ireland’s Euro 2016 squad for Ross County forward Boyce. Now he has proven he should be the one leading the line for his country’s biggest fixture of the summer. The Scottish Premiership’s top scorer in 2016-17 now has 11 goals in his previous 11 fixtures for club and country and finally opened his international account with a shrewd finish on his unfavoured left foot. He worked well in tandem with Josh Magennis and O’Neill will surely stick with that pairing next weekend.
2. O’Neill can still use a back three even without Craig Cathcart
The bad news to emerge from Friday night was that Watford’s Craig Cathcart will be out of another World Cup qualifier, this time due to a knee injury he picked up towards the end of the season. Cathcart was ever-present at Euro 2016 and started in March against Norway when O’Neill revisited his three centre-back system. Cathcart’s absence means he could shift to a flat back four again, though he used three against the All Whites on Friday and 37-year-old Aaron Hughes has the nous to slot in alongside West Brom duo Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley if required.
3. Depleted Northern Irish still have strength in depth
Cathcart is one of the eight outfield players who went to the Euros last June but will now not face the Azeris 12 months on. The absence of Luke McCullough, Paddy McNair, Corry Evans, Chris Baird, Conor Washington, Will Grigg and Jamie Ward means O’Neill is without 40 per cent of the outfield players he had in France, though the emergence of others over the past year has been pleasing. Boyce is one, as is midfielder Matthew Lund, who O’Neill made a point of praising, while Accrington’s Shay McCartan enjoyed a lively cameo on debut.
4. Tom Flanagan has a bright international future
Another debutant on Friday was Burton defender Flanagan, who became the 50th player to win a cap under O’Neill. He slotted in to the defence alongside Evans and Hughes, who between them had 163 caps, and after a shaky start Flanagan looked just as assured as his vastly experienced colleagues. His manager insists the 25-year-old has plenty more to offer in terms of distribution, and will be grateful that from his only mishap New Zealand’s Kosta Barbarouses struck just a post, but this was an impressive maiden display from Flanagan.
5. New Zealand could cause an upset at the Confederations Cup
It was no surprise to see the Antipodean visitors start sluggishly given their 30-hour journey to the United Kingdom this week, but they improved after the break and certainly did not look like a team 67 places beneath Northern Ireland in the world rankings. English manager Anthony Hudson is confident his team can raise eyebrows at the Confederations Cup in Russia, and fixtures against the hosts, Mexico and Portugal will offer them a chance to do so. Friday night was evidence they will certainly be a physical proposition and one that should not be taken lightly.