Northern Ireland’s Euro 2024 qualifying misery continued as they fell to a 1-0 defeat to Kazakhstan after the long trip to Astana.
It was a fifth consecutive defeat in this campaign, and the fourth time in the last five Michael O’Neill’s injury-ravaged side have been unable to muster a goal.
Kazakhstan put the first nail in the coffin of Northern Ireland’s qualifying hopes with their smash-and-grab 1-0 win in Belfast in June, and added another here with Maksim Samorodov’s 27th-minute strike enough to take three points.
Northern Ireland can only envy the progress of a side ranked 40 places below them, with this Kazakhstan’s fourth win in Group H, keeping them in the thick of the qualification fight.
O’Neill has more than enough capital – both within the dressing room and beyond it – to avoid coming under pressure, but this losing run and the injury crisis which has contributed to it are becoming a real test of Northern Ireland’s resolve.
The qualifying campaign has gone so wrong the Green and White Army might even be looking forward to next year’s Nations League – a competition which has rarely warmed Northern Irish hearts.
This was another match where little separated the sides – with Northern Ireland having more of the ball and more shots – but O’Neill’s men did not get the rub of the green on the Astana Arena’s artificial surface.
O’Neill promised adjustments to make his side more compact after Thursday’s 4-2 loss to Slovenia but as they tightened up Kazakhstan were able to frustrate the visitors, with nothing like the same attacking vigour seen against Slovenia on show.
George Saville’s ambitious second-minute strike was as close as Northern Ireland got to goal in the opening half-hour.
Kazakhstan looked the more threatening, with Baktiyor Zainutdinov hitting a low drive narrowly wide before Trai Hume was required to make a strong block to keep out Yerkin Tapalov’s shot.
But moments later the hosts led as Samorodov skipped away from the returning Dan Ballard, creating space to arrow a shot into the bottom corner of the net from 20 yards out, prompting a prolonged inquiry between Saville and Jonny Evans.
Kazakhstan threatened again. Bailey Peacock-Farrell failed to gather a high ball under pressure from Abzal Beysebekov before Paddy McNair cleared the danger, then Ballard made a vital block to prevent Samorodov going clean through.
Having survived the danger, Northern Ireland contrived to miss the best chance of the night before half-time. Conor Washington flicked the ball perfectly into the path of Matty Kennedy but the Kilmarnock man struggled to get it out of his feet, rolling a tame cross-shot beyond goalkeeper Igor Shatskiy.
Conor McMenamin came racing in to try to prod home, but goalscorer Samorodov beat him to the ball before it was cleared, leaving Northern Ireland scratching their heads.
O’Neill sent on Jordan Thompson and Paul Smyth to replace McMenamin and Saville at the break, and Northern Ireland soon threatened again with Shatskiy doing well to deny Washington as he got a flick on Shea Charles’s shot.
Northern Ireland kept Kazakhstan pegged back for most of the final 20 minutes, but as has been the case too many times, the clear chance they needed to equalise proved elusive.