Michael O’Neill is keen to forget all about the Nations League after Northern Ireland’s frustrating campaign ended with his side conceding a “sickening” stoppage-time winner to Austria at Windsor Park.
Valentino Lazaro struck with virtually the last kick of the game as Austria won 2-1 to make it four defeats out of four for Northern Ireland in the competition.
There have been encouraging signs for O’Neill’s in all four games but no rewards – with attention now turning to next year’s Euro 2020 qualifiers.
“There’s a lot more positives than negatives but ultimately we lost the game so that’s a negative,” O’Neill said. “In terms of where we are as a team basically we’ve got to forget the Nations League was ever invented and we’re ready to go and play in March.”
After a first half of few chances, Xaver Schlager put Austria ahead four minutes into the second half, nipping in front of George Saville to rifle a low shot across goal.
Corry Evans’ first international goal in eight years just before the hour looked like giving Northern Ireland their first point in the competition, but Austria finished the stronger after Marko Arnautovic came on as a substitute with 20 minutes to play.
“He’s a top player, a top, top player,” O’Neill said of the West Ham man. “When you look at him you see he’s a top-four player in the Premier League, he could play in any of the top teams in Europe.
“When you have that physicality, pace, technical ability, it’s incredible really. No doubt when you’ve got a player of that calibre and you drop him into the team he’ll give you a special spark and he did that.”
Austria’s winning goal came from a Northern Ireland mistake, with Stuart Dallas robbed of possession by David Alaba, who played in Arnautovic who in turn set up Lazaro.
“Stuart is maybe thinking he should have put the ball out of play and then the referee would blow the final whistle at that time,” O’Neill said.
“But again we’re looking at that wee bit of quality, it’s an Alaba-Arnautovic combination and the lad Lazaro, it’s a fantastic finish that separates the teams. It’s very sickening to lose a game that way, I don’t think we deserved to lose the game again today.”
O’Neill blamed fatigue, suggesting his side ran out of steam after a tough battle against a physical team.
“We were just weary in the last few minutes I think, we couldn’t clear the ball a couple of times,” he said.
“Steven (Davis) maybe gave the ball away which we rarely see and that’s just down to mental and physical fatigue as well so we will need to, when the Euros come around, we will need to change the team and that’s something we have to be able to do and not weaken the team.
“Hopefully when that situation arises we’re able to do that and we’re stronger from the experience of this wonderful Nations League.”
Austria had kept Northern Ireland on their toes with their movement in attack, with Alaba and Lazaro switching sides on the wings.
“I believe that the players in the front three should have the freedom to change between themselves and this created a good tempo and the situation that brought the goal,” Austria coach Franco Foda said through a translator.
“We are very happy about the result, you could feel that in the dressing room. We’ve done everything that was needed.”