Belarus 0-1 Northern Ireland: McNair’s late strike maintains perfect start for O’Neill’s men

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Paddy McNair snatched a dramatic 86th-minute winner to maintain Northern Ireland’s 100 per cent record at the top of Group D.

The Middlesbrough midfielder’s first goal for his country means Northern Ireland have won four qualifiers at the start of a campaign for the first time.

They looked set to drop points in a game of few chances at a half-empty Borisov Arena until McNair took possession on the left, dribbled his way past Ivan Maevski and drilled a shot beyond goalkeeper Alexandr Gutor from a tight angle. 

A late winner for the third game in a row has given Michael O’Neill’s side a real chance of qualifying going into their double headers against Germany and Holland in the autumn.

‘With belief, energy and a home crowd, the next indication of progress of this team is to take a big scalp, and we have two of the biggest coming to Belfast in the next few months,’ said O’Neill.

‘We have to believe we can go and win the games, simple as that. What we’ve done is create a points gap between ourselves and particularly the Netherlands because of their participation In the Nations League.

‘Hopefully they’re under a little bit more pressure. That’s the objective. We said that to the players when we got them together in March.’

O’Neill made four changes to the side that won 2-1 against Estonia in Tallinn on Saturday as he handed starts to the three attackers who came off the bench to turn the game, Josh Magennis, Conor Washington and Jordan Jones.

Their opponents made five changes to the team that lost their third qualifier in a row against Germany, although Alexandr Gutor kept his place in goal after Belarus had played three different keepers up to that point.

Northern Ireland’s plan was to get the ball to Jones at every opportunity and he gave Igor Shitov a torrid time down the left flank throughout a first half that failed to produce a shot on target from either side.

The best opportunity fell to Washington in the fourth minute when Jamal Lewis slipped the ball into his path, and the striker recently released by Sheffield United cut inside Nikita Naumov before drilling a shot inches wide of the post.

Jonny Evans also had a half chance when McNair won a free-kick wide on the right and floated it towards edge of the six-yard box, but the Leicester City defender couldn’t get enough power on his header to trouble Gutor.

Northern Ireland became increasingly ragged as the half wore on, giving away possession too easily and allowing Belarus to get on the front foot. Leeds goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell had to be on his toes on several occasions, but he was almost caught out by a wayward cross from Dzyanis Polyakov that drifted narrowly wide of the upright.

O’Neill’s side also made a strong start to the second half and another Jones cross caused trouble for the home team before Washington went close, seeing his right-foot shot from the edge of the box plucked out of the air by Gutor as it headed for the top corner.

The Northern Ireland boss still decided it was time to send on Stuart Dallas in the 56th minute as he came on for Magennis to give his side more creativity down the right flank, and then George Saville for Corry Evans.

But it was Belarus who went closest to making a breakthrough when Peacock-Farrell had to make a smart save down to his left to turn away Igor Stasevich’s effort.

It looked as though Northern Ireland’s lead at the top of the group would be cut to one point following Germany’s emphatic win over Estonia, but McNair had other ideas.

‘Sometimes people think these games are a formality,’ said O’Neill. ‘They’re not. They’re never a formality for Northern Ireland. We’re not going to come here and win 3-0. Possibly Germany and the Netherlands have that capability.’ 

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