Northern Ireland lost out 4-2 to Slovenia in a helter-skelter UEFA Euro 2024 qualifier in Ljubljana this evening.
Around 850 Northern Ireland fans were among the 13,000 spectators in the 16,000-capacity Stozice Stadion for the Group H game and they were treated to a remarkable encounter in the Slovenian capital which ebbed and flowed.
Michael O’Neill’s side played some neat football at times, however Slovenia ruthlessly punished defensive frailties.
Northern Ireland had an early setback when Benjamin Sesko fed fellow striker Andraz Sporar and he tucked the ball past Bailey Peacock-Farrell to make it one-nil after three minutes.
The boys in green and white were level four minutes later. Conor McMenamin found Matty Kennedy at the back post and his close range effort was pushed out by Slovenian keeper Jan Oblak, however the ball fell to Isaac Price and he tucked it home to register his first goal at senior international level.
On 11 minutes Dion Charles was chopped down on the edge of the penalty area. Kennedy took the free-kick and curled the ball inches wide of the upright.
Slovenia regained the lead in the 17th minute when Petar Stojanovic got the better of Ciaron Brown down the right flank and sped forward before beating Peacock-Farrell at his near post with a shot that took a huge deflection off Jonny Evans.
Shea Charles played a neat one-two with Price, however the midfielder’s shot from just outside the area flew well over the top.
Then McMenamin whipped in a dangerous cross to the back post where the ball evaded the onrushing Paddy McNair by inches before Shea Charles steered another shot over the bar.
In the 33rd minute McMenamin skipped past his marker close to the bye-line and fired in a low shot which was pushed away by Oblak at his near post.
The home side had the ball in the net again two minutes later, however the ‘goal’ was ruled out as Sesko was adjudged to be offside when he tucked the ball into the net from close range.
Slovenia grabbed a third on 42 minutes when the ever sharp Sesko twisted and turned inside the area and expertly slammed the ball into the bottom corner.
Sesko showed some lovely skill with a clever flick to set up Sporar five minutes after the break, however the striker’s snapshot from a few yards out cannoned off the bar.
On 53 minutes Northern Ireland made it 3-2. Captain Evans showed great composure inside the area as he made room for a shot and clipped the ball into the top corner.
Slovenia got their fourth just three minutes later when Sporar pounced on a through ball and jinked past his marker and rounded Peacock-Farrell before stroking the ball into an empty net.
Down the left flank George Saville whipped in a lovely ball which was cleared by the Slovenian defence as Northern Ireland tried to get back into the game.
In the 80th minute Evans headed a corner into the path of substitute Paul Smyth, however he scuffed his shot and it was easily gathered by Oblak.
Moments later Smyth fired a cross into the area which was met by another substitute, Josh Magennis, however his header was straight at the keeper.
Then a long throw from Smyth found its way to McMenamin and his header was also straight at Oblak.
Shea Charles left a couple of players in his wake before putting in McMenamin down the left. He unleashed a powerful shot but the Slovenian captain palmed it away. It was a great effort.
Northern Ireland continued to press, however they could not find a way through.
As the final whistle approached Sporar was denied a hat-trick when Evans scooped his shot off the line.
Slovenia: Jan Oblak (captain), Zan Karnicnik, David Brekalo, Jaka Bijol, Erik Janza, Adam Cerin, Petar Stojanovic, Timi Elsnik, Andraz Sporar, Benjamin Sesko, Jan Mlakar.
Substitutes: Vid Belec (GK), Matevz Vidovsek (GK), Jure Balkovec, Miha Blazic, Jon Stankovic, Aljosa Matko, Sandi Lovric, Jasmin Kurtic, Vanja Drkusic, Zan Vipotnik, Luka Zahovic, Zan Celar.
Northern Ireland: Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Trai Hume, Matty Kennedy, Paddy McNair, Jonny Evans (captain), Ciaron Brown, George Saville, Shea Charles, Dion Charles, Isaac Price, Conor McMenamin.
Substitutes: (used) Craig Cathcart, Josh Magennis, Conor Washington, Ali McCann; (unused) Conor Hazard (GK), Luke Southwood (GK), Brodie Spencer, Eoin Toal, Paul Smyth, Jordan Jones, Jordan Thompson, Brad Lyons.