Croa­t­ians hit Ul­ster­men in Belfast duel

Mandzu­kic, Cop and Kra­maric rock the Ir­ish

The Star (Kenya) - - Sports - BY KIERAN GILL /

If this was Michael O’Neill’s fi­nal farewell to North­ern Ire­land be­fore an un­likely switch to Scot­land, then it would not be a be­fit­ting way to sign off af­ter five years at the helm.

It was scrappy and un­like the side we’re used to see­ing un­der the 47-year-old, as Croa­tia won with goals from Mario Mandzu­kic, Duje Cop and a sec­ond-half screamer from An­drej Kra­maric.

Yet all the at­ten­tion was on O’Neill, who lives in Ed­in­burgh and has seen spec­u­la­tion that he could take over from strug­gling Scot­land boss Gor­don Stra­chan in­ten­sify.

O’Neill main­tains he will be in charge when Nor­way come to visit in March but a lot can change in four months in foot­ball, and he gave no long-term guar­an­tees in the build-up to this tie.

This was not a game to tell the grand­chil­dren about from a North­ern Ire­land point of view, nor a true show of O’Neill’s tal­ents.

Yet if Scot­land do con­sider him as their next head coach, they will look at what he’s done in five years, not 90 min­utes.

O’Neill led North­ern Ire­land to their first-ever Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship in the sum­mer and saw his side put four past Azer­bai­jan in their World Cup qual­i­fier on Fri­day.

They are sec­ond only to world cham­pi­ons Ger­many in their qual­i­fy­ing group and here was a chance to flex their mus­cles against a Croa­tia team cap­tained by Ju­ven­tus star Mandzu­kic.

It just didn’t hap­pen, how­ever, as the vis­i­tors took a de­served lead then dug in their heels.

Speak­ing af­ter­wards, O’Neill said: ’I’m go­ing back there [to Scot­land] on a plane on Thurs­day be­cause that’s where I live and that’s the only thing that I’m think­ing about in re­gards to Scot­land.

“There is no con­cern about that. It’s not even rel­e­vant to tonight’s sit­u­a­tion at all.

“The main thing for me in this is to con­tinue to try to im­prove things all the time, to im­prove foot­ball in North­ern Ire­land.’

Kick off was de­layed by 15 min­utes due to traf­fic con­ges­tion.

/REUTERS

North­ern Ire­land’s Lee Hod­son in ac­tion with Croa­tia’s An­drej Kra­maric in their in­ter­na­tional friendlyb at Wind­sor Park, Belfast, North­ern Ire­land .

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