Kazakhstan inflict fifth successive defeat on Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland’s Euro 2024 qualifying misery continued as they fell to a 1-0 defeat to Kazakhstan after the long trip to Astana.

It was a fifth consecutive defeat in this campaign, and the fourth time in the last five Michael O’Neill’s injury-ravaged side have been unable to muster a goal.

Kazakhstan put the first nail in the coffin of Northern Ireland’s qualifying hopes with their smash-and-grab 1-0 win in Belfast in June, and added another here with Maxim Samorodov’s 27th-minute strike enough to take three points.

Northern Ireland can only envy the progress of a side ranked 40 places below them, with this Kazakhstan’s fourth win in Group H, keeping them in the thick of the qualification fight.

O’Neill has more than enough capital – both within the dressing room and beyond it – to avoid coming under pressure, but this losing run and the injury crisis which has contributed to it are becoming a real test of Northern Ireland’s resolve.

How O’Neill’s Northern Irish nightmare continued

Samorodov's goal proved enough to secure the points
Samorodov’s goal proved enough to secure the points

The qualifying campaign has gone so wrong the Green and White Army might even be looking forward to next year’s Nations League – a competition which has rarely warmed Northern Irish hearts.

This was another match where little separated the sides – with Northern Ireland having more of the ball and more shots – but O’Neill’s men did not get the rub of the green on the Astana Arena’s artificial surface.

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Dan Ballard was fit to start Northern Ireland’s Euro 2024 qualifier away to Kazakhstan in a timely boost for Michael O’Neill after the loss of Ciaron Brown and Craig Cathcart to injury.

Ballard, who has been struggling with an ankle problem, came into the starting 11 in one of three changes to the side beaten 4-2 by Slovenia on Thursday.

Conor Washington replaced Dion Charles in attack and Ali McCann came in for Standard Liege teenager Isaac Price, who scored his first international goal in Ljubljana.

Abat Aimbetov, who came off the bench to get the winner for Kazakhstan when the two sides met in Belfast in June, was again among the substitutes.

O’Neill promised adjustments to make his side more compact after Thursday’s 4-2 loss to Slovenia but as they tightened up Kazakhstan were able to frustrate the visitors, with nothing like the same attacking vigour seen against Slovenia on show.

George Saville’s ambitious second-minute strike was as close as Northern Ireland got to goal in the opening half-hour as Conor McMenamin, the star of the show on Thursday, found Besiktas left-back Nuraly Alip a much more difficult customer than Slovenia’s Erik Janza.

Kazakhstan looked the more threatening, with Baktiyor Zainutdinov hitting a low drive narrowly wide before Trai Hume was required to make a strong block to keep out Yerkin Tapalov’s shot.

Northern Ireland's Conor Washington in action
Northern Ireland’s Conor Washington in action

But moments later the hosts led as Samorodov skipped away from the returning Dan Ballard, creating space to arrow a shot into the bottom corner of the net from 20 yards out, prompting a prolonged inquiry between Saville and Jonny Evans.

Kazakhstan threatened again. Bailey Peacock-Farrell failed to gather a high ball under pressure from Abzal Beysebekov before Paddy McNair cleared the danger, then Ballard made a vital block to prevent Samorodov going clean through.

Having survived the danger, Northern Ireland contrived to miss the best chance of the night before half-time.

Shea Charles fights for the ball with Askhat Tagybergen
Shea Charles fights for the ball with Askhat Tagybergen

Conor Washington flicked the ball perfectly into the path of Matty Kennedy but the Kilmarnock man struggled to get it out of his feet, rolling a tame cross-shot beyond goalkeeper Igor Shatskiy.

McMenamin came racing in to try to prod home, but goalscorer Samorodov beat him to the ball before Alip hooked it away.

O’Neill sent on Jordan Thompson and Paul Smyth to replace McMenamin and Saville at the break, and Northern Ireland soon threatened again with Shatskiy doing well to deny Washington as he got a flick on Shea Charles’ shot.

Jordan Jones replaced Kennedy and Northern Ireland began to build pressure after the hour. Charles won a foot race to win the ball in the corner of the box and teed up Washington, but his shot was charged down.

Northern Ireland kept Kazakhstan pegged back for most of the final 20 minutes, but as has been the case too many times, the clear chance they needed to equalise proved elusive.

What’s next?

Kazakhstan’s next game is a Euro 2024 Qualifier against Denmark in Copenhagen on October 14 – kick-off 7.45pm.

Northern Ireland’s next outing is against San Marino in a Euro 2024 Qualifier at Windsor Park on October 14 – kick-off 2pm.

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