Where do you start with this one?
For the first time in a long time, there was a feelgood factor about going to Northern Ireland matches. What Michael O’Neill is doing was always going to take a while to bring results, and it did spectacularly against Russia last month.
With Portugal, and Cristiano Ronaldo in town, another major scalp was on offer. It wasn’t his visit to Windsor Park, having played there for Portugal in a friendly in 2005. It’s fair to say he’s a better player now than he was now.
The opening 20 minutes, neither side had a real chance and Northern Ireland held their own, but soon after, Portugal went 1-0 when a clearance from a corner was slotted home by Bruno Alves. From where I was in The Kop, it was a poor goal to concede.
It was a familiar story, holding our own but go 1-0 down to superior opposition. Surely it would now be a matter of how many?
But no, instead of feeling sorry for themselves, Northern Ireland just got on with it and went in at half-time level when Gareth MacAulay headed home from a corner. It got better, as Helder Postiga was sent-off in first-half stoppage time.
Holding our own, at home, against ten men, with the best atmosphere at Windsor Park in ages ….. it was on.
The most notable thing was Cristiano Ronaldo being deep in conversation with Portugal’s bench. He wasn’t having the best of nights. To me, it looked like he was carrying an injury.
The second-half kicked off, and Northern Ireland went in front, when Jamie Ward nudged the ball home from a yard out. There was a delayed celebration in The Kop, as a lot of people thought the goal was going to be disallowed.
The momentum, would swing again, as Chris Brunt was sent-off. You couldn’t argue with any of the red cards on the night. The annoying thing about both Northern Ireland red cards was that the fouls were in positions where Portugal weren’t going to do any damage.
Especially frustrating, was that against Russia, Northern Ireland displayed a new level of street smartness.
I’ve no doubt if Northern Ireland had kept 11 men on the pitch, they would have won. Once the one man advantage had been wiped out, Portugal were always going to go on and win.
From there, it was The Cristiano Ronaldo Show. Panto booed all night, and subjected the ironic cheers for Lionel Messi and Gareth Bale, he responeded by scoring two headers to put Portugal in front.
Soon after, Kyle Lafferty was sent-off. Like Brunt, for a second yellow for a foul in an area where Portugal couldn’t do any damage.
It was already an uphill task. It was now impossible.
When Portugal got a free-kick on the edge of the box, there was an inevitability that he would complete his hat-trick. They were his only three meaningful touches all night.
Having been booed and taunted all night, he eventually got a standing ovation when he was substituted soon after.
At 4-2 behind and a man down, it could have been easy for Northern Ireland to capitulate and lose 5-3 or 6-2. Thankfully, they didn’t. It was pleasing to see Northern Ireland want the ball and not be afraid to go forward with it.
However, the standard has been set, and performances like against Russia and Portugal must become the norm, beginning with Tuesday against Luxembourg.
These last two games, however, have given me so much optimism for Euro 2016, especially with 23 places up for grab instead of 14/15
Ideally for the draw, i’d love Gibraltar, purely to play them at home in the first game, purely to witness a historic first competitive game for them (Not many firsts you can claim in this day and age) and a home nation, preferrably England.
Hoping to go to Cardiff for the 2014 European Super Cup Final, and was at Hampden this year, so it would be nice to see Northern Ireland at Wembley.
I’m seriously considering going to Euro 2016, especially as the host cities are on a clear North/South divid, I could base myself in Paris or Nice and commute to other cities. I’ll have to wait until the tournament schedule is released though.
The next time I see Northern Ireland play at Windsor Park, hopefully, it’ll be a different stadium due to the refurbishment. A defeat last night, but some positivity.
Got some photos of last night’s game, enjoy.