Northern Ireland breathed new life into their Group C qualifying campaign with a deserved victory over Lithuania in Vilnius.
Ian Baraclough’s side now face Switzerland – who controversially beat Northern Ireland in a play-off for the last World Cup – at Windsor Park on Wednesday looking to put pressure on the Swiss and Italy who meet in Basel this weekend.
‘We could be two points behind Switzerland when we play them, so it’s set up for a humdinger,’ said Baraclough. ‘People are very quick to close things down, but it’s not as clear-cut as you might think. I said to the boys they had to come of age and they’ve stepped up to the plate.’
Shayne Lavery restored Ireland’s two-goal margin by turning in Jordan Thompson’s cross
Paddy McNair converted a late penalty awarded for Utkus’s rash challenge on Davis
LITHUANIA (4-2-3-1): Setkus; Baravykas, Utkus, Satkus, Slavickas; Verbickas, Megelaitis; Novikovas, Cernych, Lasickas; Dubickas. Subs: Gertmonas, Plukas, Klimavicius, Gaspuitis, Dapkus, Uzela, E Jankauskas, Tutyskinas, D Kazlauskas, Barauskas, Vorobjovas.
Scorer: Baravykas 54
Booked: Utkus, Megelaitis, Slavickas
N IRELAND (3-5-2): Peacock-Farrell; McNair, Cathcart, Ballard; Smith, Davis, McCann, Thompson, Lewis; Washington, Lavery. Subs: Carson, Hazard, Flanagan, Donnelly, McGinn, Lafferty, Charles, Jones, Whyte, McCalmont, Brown.
Scorers: Ballard 20, Washington pen 52, Lavery, McNair pen 82
Booked: McNair, Washington
Referee: Stephanie Frappart (France)
Dan Ballard, on loan at Millwall from Arsenal, and Blackpool’s Shayne Lavery scored their first goals for Northern Ireland with Conor Washington and Paddy McNair both converting from the penalty spot.
But it needed a penalty save from Bailey Peacock-Farrell to thwart a Lithuania comeback after Rolandas Baravykas had made it 2-1 in the second half.
Victory was particularly satisfying for Baraclough after seeing his preparations disrupted by Stuart Dallas’ late withdrawal for personal reasons and the absence of Jonny and Corry Evans, George Saville and Josh Magennis. New coach Adam Sadler, brought in last week after Austin MacPhee switched to Scotland, also pulled out due to a family bereavement.
Baraclough added: ‘I don’t think you realise from outside the bubble what has gone on this week, the downs we’ve had to pick ourselves up from. There was a lot of disruption.’
Northern Ireland came into the game needing to win after dropping points against Bulgaria in Belfast in March. Baraclough opted for a back-three, five in midfield and Lavery starting alongside Washington up front, and saw his team dominate the first half.
Lavery had a golden chance as early as the fifth minute when Jamal Lewis whipped in a cross from the left that found the Blackpool striker unmarked in front of goal, but he fluffed his effort from close range.
Conor Washington doubled their lead from the spot five minutes into the second half
However, Ballard made no mistake when he was presented with an even simpler opportunity in the 20th minute. A corner was cleared to the edge of the box where Lewis and Steven Davis worked the ball out to the right for Washington. His cross was excellent as it beat goalkeeper Ernestas Setkus and fell perfectly for Ballard to bundle the ball into an empty net.
Lavery squandered another chance before half-time when he was sent racing clear by Washington but the ball bounced too high on the artificial surface and he blazed his shot over.
Northern Ireland took firm control of the game five minutes after the restart when French referee Stephanie Frappart spotted a clear handball by Linas Megelaitis as he blocked Michael Smith’s shot and Washington sent Setkus the wrong way to score from the penalty spot.
But it all threatened to go wrong for Baraclough’s side in the space of 10 minutes. First, Baravykas rifled a fantastic shot past Peacock-Farrell after a corner had bounced through to him on the edge of the box. Then McNair conceded a penalty for an untidy challenge on Justas Lasickas after Frappart was advised by VAR to review the incident on a pitchside monitor.
Northern Ireland can reflect on a job well done and attack the rest of the campaign
However, Peacock-Farrell guessed the right way to save the spot-kick from Arvydas Novikovas. ‘Bailey’s shown Premier League class which is what he is,’ said Baraclough.
Lavery made sure of victory when he took his third chance of the night in the 67th minute. Lewis played in Jordan Thompson down the left and his low cross was turned in by Lavery from close-range.
McNair converted a late penalty awarded for Edgaras Utkus’s rash challenge on Davis after Baraclough instructed Washington to step aside despite his earlier success from the spot.
‘Conor is raging with me in there,’ admitted the Northern Ireland boss. ‘He says he hates that rule but we think it’s difficult to take a second penalty. We’ve looked into certain stats.’