Northern Ireland Under-21s’ success in Spain boosts Euro dreams

Northern Ireland under 21s' Liam Donnelly. Pic by Pacemaker.
Northern Ireland under 21s' Liam Donnelly. Pic by Pacemaker.

Northern Ireland under 21s boosted their Euro 2019 play-off qualification hopes with a hard-earned 2-1 away win over Group 2 leaders Spain in Albacete.

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Spain had already secured a place in next summer’s finals with seven straight wins.

However, Ian Baraclough’s men produced a resolute display at the Estadio Carlos Belmonte following two goals inside the opening 10 minutes through Shayne Lavery and a penalty by captain Liam Donnelly.

Celtic goalkeeper Conor Hazard saved a Spain spot-kick just before the interval.

Although the home side reduced the deficit through Rafa Mir in stoppage time, it was not enough to deny Northern Ireland a memorable victory.

Northern Ireland moved to third place in the group, with two matches left - just one point behind Slovakia, whom they will face at Windsor Park in the final qualifier next month.

The visitors, who beat Luxembourg 1-0 in a friendly on Thursday, got off to a flying start through Everton forward Lavery after just four minutes.

Northern Ireland then doubled their lead after Paul Smyth had been brought down in the penalty area by Francis Guerrero.

Motherwell defender Donnelly, making a record 22nd under-21 international appearance, made no mistake from the spot, slotting into the bottom corner.

Spain could have reduced the deficit just before half-time when Ryan Johnson fouled Borja Mayoral.

Hazard, though, guessed correctly, making a fine save down to his right to deny the young Real Madrid forward, who is on a season loan at Levante.

Mayoral was thwarted by Hazard again early in the second half, and the Northern Ireland keeper remained busy.

Spain, though, could only find a way through in stoppage time when Mir was set up by Mayoral as Baraclough’s men closed out a fine result.