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No regrets – Michael O’Neill sees long-term value in Spanish hammering

Michael O’Neill believes Northern Ireland will be better in the long run for their game against Spain (Andrew Milligan/PA)
Michael O’Neill believes Northern Ireland will be better in the long run for their game against Spain (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Michael O’Neill insisted he had no regrets about pitting his young Northern Ireland players against Spain as they will benefit in the long term from Saturday’s 5-1 defeat.

Northern Ireland came into the friendly in Palma on the back of an encouraging run of two wins and a draw against Denmark, Romania and Scotland, and were in dreamland when Daniel Ballard headed them in front inside 70 seconds.

But Spain, ranked eighth in the world, are a cut above. Pedri scored twice with Alvaro Morata and Fabian Ruiz also finding the net to make it 4-1 at half-time, and substitute Mikel Oyarzabal added a fifth in the second half.

Pedri, centre, celebrates scoring Spain’s third goal against Northern Ireland
Pedri led the way as Spain proved far too strong for Northern Ireland (Francisco Ubilla/AP)

It was a stark reminder of the sort of class Northern Ireland could come up against in the World Cup qualifiers next year – precisely the reason O’Neill agreed to the fixture.

“I felt it was the right opportunity,” O’Neill said. “It would have been easier possibly to play a nation more at our level but in the Nations League we’re going to play teams at our level, this was an opportunity to show our players the highest level.

“We have to take that in mind with the World Cup (qualifiers) starting in March, we need to play against as many good teams as possible so I’ve no regrets about taking the game.

“We will deal with the result. I’ve been beaten before.”

While Spain are into their final preparations for the Euros, listed amongst the favourites, many Northern Ireland players had not played competitively in a month and the gulf in experience was also clear.

“We’re a very young side and you could see from the substitutions we got younger as the game went on,” O’Neill said.

“For a lot of our players, they don’t play club football at that level so they get exposure in a game like this. The positive is it shows our players this is the level they have to get to to play top international football.”

O’Neill switched to a back four at half-time and it helped to stem the tide, but he said he did not want to make major changes to the system that has been working for his team in recent times.

“We’ve defended deep against Denmark, against Scotland and against Romania and we’ve defended well, we only conceded one goal (across the three games), but we faced a higher level of player here and that’s something we have to bear in mind,” he said.

“In the second half with the back four we defended better than we did with the back three or back five but we have to trust it, we can’t just rip it up and do something else. We have to believe in this system going forwards.”

Tuesday’s game against Andorra in Murcia offers Northern Ireland a quick opportunity to flip the narrative and record another win.

“The dressing room is quiet but I don’t think it will damage morale,” O’Neill said. “We wouldn’t come here with the expectation of winning the game, we came with the expectation to make it difficult and see if we could possibly hurt Spain.

“Ultimately we saw we still have a lot of development as a team to get to that point.”