Michal Duris’ winner, scored in the second period of extra-time, saw off a brave Northern Ireland and secured Slovakia’s place in Group E of Euro 2020, along with Poland, Sweden and Spain.
For 70 minutes, it looked for all the world as though Juraj Kucka’s well-taken goal would do the trick, underlining the difference in class between the two teams. But then Milan Skriniar’s own goal, three minutes from the end of normal time, closed out the first period of pressure Northern Ireland had been able to sustain, and a lot of good it did them.
Northern Ireland actually started the game well, looking to impose their aerial superiority with a succession of crosses and punts. But Slovakia wore them well, gradually imposing their more technical and thoughtful game, taking the lead on 17 minutes when George Saville headed back to Jonny Evans, who wasn’t there, and Kucka burst onto the loose ball to slide a clever, composed finish past Bailey Peacock-Farrell.
The second half was not dissimilar to the first, Northern Ireland playing higher up the pitch but still hoping that running and trying hard would be enough to make chances. It proved not to be the case and Slovakia, led by the excellent Skriniar, gradually resumed control, seeing out the majority of the second half with almost dismissive ease.
But then, on 77 minutes, Ian Baraclough sent on Kyle Lafferty, and suddenly everything changed. When the ball went forward, it stuck, allowing the home side to build a head of steam, and the equaliser that had looked unlikely for the 70 minutes it had been pursued, arrived, Skriniar deflecting home after good work from Paddy McNair.
Not a whole lot happened in extra time, but just as penalties looked likely, Duris struck, and it is his team who go through to the finals.
Duris, Northern Ireland v Slovakia
Image credit: Getty Images
It's a funny thing, British football. In the 80s and 90s, the home nations and Ireland had some absolutely brilliant players - Scotland had Hansen, Miller, McLeish, Strachan, Dalglish, McStay and Gough; Wales had Hughes, Rush, Ratcliffe and Southall; Northern Ireland had Whiteside and Jennings, Ireland had Houghton, Keane and McGrath. So, while their problems since then are partly down to the collapse of Communism, which created a whole raft of new nations, the fact is they’re simply not producing players of requisite quality.
Nevertheless, there are ways of going about things. When Ireland played Slovakia a few weeks ago, and though their squad are not replete with elite-level quality, their passing and movement allowed them to create good situations and opportunities such that on a different night, they might have won. Northern Ireland, on the other hand, simply sought to hunt the big men, whether from goal kicks, crosses, corners or free-kicks, and while that’s fine as a plan, it’s not fine as the only plan.
If he is to take the team further, Ian Baraclough needs to alter his team’s style – he must empower his players to express themselves, and back them to take risks. The rudimentary style he deployed tonight can still work, but if opponents are ready for it and know it is coming, they can prepare for it then set themselves for it, secure in the knowledge that there are no surprises awaiting them.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Milan Skriniar (Slovakia): The best player on the pitch, by far. He repelled everything in the air and almost everything on the ground, passing sensibly, organising well and carrying the ball out of defence when the opportunity presented itself. Even if he did score at the wrong end...
Juraj Kucka of Slovakia celebrates after scoring his team's first goal during the UEFA EURO 2020 Play-Off Final between Northern Ireland and Slovakia at Windsor Park on November 12, 2020 in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Image credit: Getty Images
17’ - GOAL! Northern Ireland 0-1 Slovakia (Kucka). The ball comes over from the left and Saville heads back to Evans, except Evans isn't there, having come closer to take a short one. This allows Kucka to screech onto the loose ball and though Evans gives chase, his only option is to foul and he daren't. So Kucka has a look, freezes the keeper, and passes inside the near post. That's a really calm finish, and NI are in huge trouble.
53’ - CHANCE! Saville robs Sobotka and the ball breaks for McGinn, who finds Washington! This is the chance! And he makes a good connection too, but slaps his finish straight at Rodak.
87’ - GOAL! Northern Ireland 1-1 Slovakia (Skriniar own goal). IT'S COME! McNair does really well down the right, playing a one-two off Davis and nashing into the box before crossing low towards the near post ... where Boyce puts the pressure on ... and Skriniar, who's been the best player on the pitch by far, sticks out a leg and deflects into the far corner form close range!
90’ - GOODNESS ME! Lafferty has made a huge difference, and he collects a pass from Whyte on the half-turn then swivels to shmice a low shot that's far too good for Rodak, cracking the base of the post! Can NI keep this up in extra time?
110’ - GOAL! Northern Ireland 1-2 Slovakia (Duris). Pekarik clears and the ball ends up with Kucka, who looks for Duris; the ball kicks off Evans and Duric takes it well, moving the ball around him, and driving low, hard ... and past Peackock Farrell at his near post! It's not always the keeper's fault when that happens but that one was ... probably the keeper's fault.
120’ - HUGE MISS! - But his kick is straight to a defender's head, but then Thompson retrieves and curls in a much better ball and it's onto Evan's head! WHAT A CHANCE! BUT HE PLOPS A FREE HEADER STRAIGHT AT THE KEEPER! He's had better quarter-hours.
Since the 1986 World Cup, Northern Ireland have qualified for one major tournament.