Northern Ireland 0-1 Finland: Benjamin Kallman strike hands Michael O’Neill defeat in his first home game since making return
- Michael O’Neill suffered defeat in his first game back at Windsor Park
- Benjamin Kallman scored the only goal of the game in the first half
- The loss leaves Northern Ireland with three points from their first two games
Finland gatecrashed Michael O’Neill’s homecoming at Windsor Park on Sunday night to dent Northern Ireland’s hopes of qualifying from Group H.
A first-half strike from Benjamin Kallman was enough to consign O’Neill to defeat in his first home game since returning to the job, and dampen the party mood in Belfast.
O’Neill had tried to take the emotion out of this occasion in the build-up to his return, but it was always going to be a buoyant atmosphere as the fans welcomed the 53-year-old back following Thursday’s opening group win in San Marino.
They will never forget how O’Neill led Northern Ireland to the country’s first ever Euro finals in 2016, which included a 2-1 win over the Finns at Windsor Park eight years ago this week.
There are certainly parallels between the two qualifying campaigns with Northern Ireland once again drawn in a relatively open group – underlined by a shock defeat for favourites Denmark in Kazakhstan earlier on Sunday.
Finland gatecrashed Michael O’Neill’s homecoming at Windsor Park on Sunday night
Benjamin Kallman (R) scored the only goal of the game midway through the first half
O’Neill’s success then was built on solid home form, and that will make this defeat even more disappointing.
Northern Ireland started well with Conor Washington just failing to connect with Jordan Thompson’s cross in front of goal, and Dion Charles firing over from Conor Bradley’s pull-back.
Finland’s goal came against the run of play in the 28th minute after Teemu Pukki stretched out a leg to reach Robin Lod’s cross and diverted the ball past a wrong-footed Daniel Ballard. One-time Dundee striker Kallman controlled the ball with a good first touch and turned to bury his shot from close-range.
Northern Ireland’s best opportunity of the half arrived just before the break when Bradley again broke forward and slipped the ball through for Charles – the two-goal matchwinner against San Marino – who saw his first-time shot blocked by goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky.
Finaldn climbed above Northern Ireland in Group H with the victory on Sunday night
The home side went close at the beginning of a frenetic second period as Bradley nodded down Jamal Lewis’ cross for substitute Josh Magennis to volley over.
They continued to press and Charles had a goal ruled out for handball after Hradecky made a hash of clearing Paddy McNair’s corner.
O’Neill’s side threw everything at their opponents right to the end, desperate to get something out of the game.
But there was no way back and there will now be even more pressure on Northern Ireland to pick up points from the next qualifiers against Denmark and Kazakhstan in June.
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