A Valentino Lazaro goal with the last kick of the game won the Nations League clash for Austria against Northern Ireland at Windsor Park.
It was a heartbreaking end after what had been a positive performance from Michael O’Neill’s side.
They looked set for their first point of the competition when Corry Evans hit a 57th-minute equaliser after Xaver Schlager’s goal eight minutes earlier.
Northern Ireland have lost all four matches in the new Uefa competition.
The hosts knew they were relegated from the Nations League Group B3 before Sunday’s kick-off, but they had wanted to try to end 2018 on a high.
And, while the home fans will have recognised their efforts to do so, the high-energy atmosphere for which Windsor Park is renowned was somewhat lacking.
The 17,895- crowd roused themselves after the equaliser and welcomed the second-half introduction of Kyle Lafferty, but it never threatened to become the most memorable of nights at the south Belfast ground.
After a first half in which Niall McGinn came closest to scoring when he curled a free-kick inches wide, Austria took a 49th-minute lead after an impressive left-wing move.
Bayern Munich’s David Alaba cleverly left the pass inside and Schlager swept home a low left foot shot into the bottom corner for his first international goal.
Evans’ equaliser was his second goal for Northern Ireland and came 45 games after his first in 2010.
George Saville pressed well in midfield and the ball came to Jordan Jones on the left wing, who slipped it inside to Evans whose deflected left-foot shot deceived goalkeeper Heinz Lindner.
Ultimately, though, it counted for little as Lazaro curled a perfectly-directed shot beyond the outstretched Trevor Carson and into the top corner to secure the Austrians’ first win in Belfast at the fifth attempt.
Superb Saville already a fans’ favourite
He has been earmarked by some Northern Ireland fans as the long-term successor to captain Steven Davis in the Northern Ireland midfield, and that may well prove to be the case for George Saville.
But the Middlesbrough man, who was introduced to the team towards the end of the last World Cup qualifying campaign, has already formed a fine axis with the skipper in a three-man engine room with scorer Corry Evans.
Saville was superb once again in the middle of the park for O’Neill, closing the Austrians down throughout and even more impressive as a driving force when in possession.
His pressing helped lead to Evans’ goal and he almost put his side 2-1 up in the 76th minute. He got on the ball 20 yards from goal and hit a searching shot with his cultured left foot that curled just wide of the post.
Oliver Norwood was suspended for this game and may find it difficult to force his way back into the midfield, with Davis once again a huge influence on the team and Evans proving his worth with the goal.
NI manager’s change of style
O’Neill’s side had a definite style of play for the recent Euro and World Cup qualifying campaigns. The team had a compact shape, was often happy to surrender possession and look to hurt the opposition on the break.
With the utmost attention paid to every detail by the manager, it was a percentage game that may not have been easy on the eye of the neutral, but which proved effective.
The ball moved from back to front quickly, often to target man Kyle Lafferty, and Northern Ireland reaped a lot of joy from well-rehearsed set-pieces.
There has been a noticeable change of style from O’Neill this season, with a much greater focus on possession and building attacks from the back. That element has been successful but they had failed to score in five of their last six competitive matches before Sunday night.
Northern Ireland once again looked comfortable on the ball against Austria, but, unlike in Thursday night’s friendly in Dublin, they did not create many clear-cut chances.
O’Neill has four months to think about how his side continues to evolve before they start their Euro qualifier campaign in March.
Food for thought at full-back
One of the most surprising elements of Michael O’Neill’s team selection was his deployment of Stuart Dallas at left-back, although the Leeds United winger produced a solid display.
The choice of Michael Smith on the other side of the back four was perhaps less surprising, given how well he performed against the Republic of Ireland in Dublin on what was only his second start.
The Hearts defender once again looked assured in a position which has been filled most often in recent years by Millwall’s Conor McLaughlin. Bayern Munich’s David Alaba was a threat for the Austrians down the left flank but Smith stuck to his task well against the Bundesliga forward.
Smith and Dallas were playing in a defence that welcomed back Gareth McAuley after he missed the last five internationals. The crowd favourite received a warm reception from the home fans and the Rangers centre-half was his reliable self alongside Leicester City’s Jonny Evans.
McAuley took the place of Watford regular Craig Cathcart who has been in fine form for club and country of late.
O’Neill has used a back three before but with the way the team is evolving, it looks more like he will have a few decisions to make in his defence come March.
Kicking the losing habit
While Northern Ireland’s World Cup qualifying campaign ended in dismay when they went out to a controversial Switzerland goal in a play-off, the results and performances in the group maintained the positive momentum generated at the Euros in 2016.
But now they have gone eight competitive games without a win, losing seven and drawing one.
While the evolution of their style of play has been positive, they are stuck in the habit of losing meaningful matches which they will need to address in 2019.
Manager O’Neill said throughout the Nations League that the Euros was his main focus and all thoughts will now turn to the draw in Dublin on 2 December.
Run without a win goes on – the stats
- Northern Ireland are winless in their last eight competitive games (D1 L7), their worst run since going nine without victory between September 2011 and March 2013.
- Austria scored with both of their shots on target in this game, courtesy of Xaver Schlager and Valentin Lazaro. Neither player had previously scored for their country.
- After keeping a clean sheet in four consecutive competitive home games, Northern Ireland have conceded in each of their last four.
- Corry Evans’ equaliser was Northern Ireland’s first goal in 350 minutes of action since Gavin Whyte netted in the 67th minute against Israel in September.
- Evans scored his first goal for Northern Ireland since September 2010 versus Slovenia, 2998 days ago.
- Austria’s Marko Arnautovic has been directly involved in 26 goals (15 goals and 11 assists) in 37 games for club and country in 2018, compared to 19 involvements in 44 games in 2017 (13 goals and six assists).