Northern Ireland defeated in World Cup qualifier against Russia

 

Northern Ireland's World Cup qualifying campaign got off to a losing start as goals from Viktor Fayzulin and Roman Shirokov gave Fabio Capello's Russia three points in Moscow.

The visitors set up to steal a point and for half an hour looked as though they might, only for Fayzulin to break the deadlock from eight yards.

Russia's second came from a hotly-disputed penalty, Shirokov coolly converting after left-back Craig Cathcart had been harshly treated by the referee.

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill handed goalkeeper Roy Carroll a first competitive start for six years as his side prepared to get their World Cup qualifying campaign going against strongly-fancied Russia in the Lokomotiv Stadium.

The 34-year-old, now plying his trade at Olympiakos, edged out Nottingham Forest's Lee Camp for the number one jersey, while Dean Shiels was also left on the bench despite man-of-the-match performances in his last two friendly appearances.

Derby's Jamie Ward was given his maiden international start on the left of midfield and Corry Evans was also included.

Northern Ireland started, as expected, by packing the midfield area and leaving Kyle Lafferty to forage for long balls in attack.

The Sion striker looked content with the task and dispossessed Vasily Berezutsky in the final third after only four minutes.

He was unable to pick out Ward with the cross but it raised the spirits of a travelling contingent numbering around 200.

A loose pass from Igor Denisov gave Ward the chance to break down the left after eight minutes but Dmitry Kombarov made an important saving tackle.

Alexander Kerzhakov had the first shot off the match soon after, but could not test Carroll from the edge of the area.

Russia came again and a neat first touch from Alan Dzagoev gave Kerzhakov a second chance but this time he made a poor connection.

In the 18th minute the Zenit St Petersburg forward had his best opportunity yet, Vladimir Bystrov touching the ball on to leave him eight yards from goal with the defence wrong-footed.

Instead of striking early he took an extra touch but still managed to screw the shot wide.

The visitors responded with a hard-earned corner which Gareth McAuley nodded just off target.

The home side were having the lion's share of the ball but frequently produced a sloppy final pass to give Northern Ireland some respite.

McAuley, meanwhile, was putting in a tireless shift of clearances and interceptions.

The referee was keen to let the game flow, leaving Ward particularly unimpressed when he was bundled off the ball by three opponents.

After half an hour Russia broke the deadlock through Fayzulin.

Bystrov unlocked the defence with a carefully-weighted pass, Kerzhakov centred the ball from the edge of the penalty box and the onrushing Fayzulin sent a first-time effort into the top corner.

Roman Shirokov almost put Russia two in front four minutes later only for Carroll to save well with his feet at the near post.

By now Russia were controlling possession with calmer heads, the goal having settled them.

Northern Ireland had further cause for concern on the stroke of half-time when Jonny Evans appeared to tweak a hamstring volleying a dead ball into the stands.

Evans emerged after half-time, ruling out any serious injury concern, but did not appear to moving with complete comfort.

The second half began in flat fashion, briefly brought to life when Vasily Berezutsky headed Dmitry Kombarov's 54th-minute corner just wide of the far post.

Northern Ireland were struggling for a foothold in the game, with Lafferty increasingly isolated and visibly frustrated.

Bystrov almost enticed a penalty out of Craig Cathcart when he surged into the box from the right flank but instead opted to stay on his feet and look for Kerzhakov.

Evans was alert to the danger and beat his man to the ball.

With an hour gone neither side appeared desperate to shift the momentum of the game, with Northern Ireland seemingly content to leave their pursuit of an equaliser to the last minute.

For their part, Russia were at ease but struggling to create any meaningful attacks.

Bystrov injected some life into proceedings with a jinking run towards goal, ended when Corry Evans tripped him a yard outside the area.

That gave Kerzhakov the chance to try his luck from an inviting position and he was close to doubling the lead, crashing his shot against the post.

With just under quarter of an hour left Russia were awarded the softest of penalties, Alexander Kokorin going down under minimal contact from Cathcart.

Northern Ireland were furious, not least when Cathcart was booked, but that did not stop Shirokov rolling home the spot-kick.

Northern Ireland were rightly denied a penalty of their own in the closing moments when McAuley called for handball, more in hope than expectation.

Andy Little and, belatedly, Shiels were summoned from the bench but the Rangers pair had no real chance to affect the game.

PA

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