Michael O’Neill’s return as Northern Ireland manager
Northern Ireland’s Dion Charles nets brace in 2-0 win over San Marino
Michael O’Neill’s second spell as manager got off to a winning start as Dion Charles gave Northern Ireland a 2-0 away victory in San Marino.
Dion Charles’ impressive display
The in-form Bolton striker settled his side’s nerves with his first international goal on 24 minutes and added a second soon after the break.
Expected win for the visitors
NI got the win they were expected to as they began their Euro 2024 bid against the world’s lowest-ranked side.
O’Neill’s men host Finland at Windsor Park on Sunday.
A vocal welcome for O’Neill
A chorus of ‘We love you Michael, we do’ belted out from the ever-vocal 1,000-strong Northern Ireland travelling support as they welcomed back the manager who led them to the Euro 2016 finals during his successful first tenure that ended abruptly in 2020 due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
San Marino provided inviting opponents
Having won just four times in 24 competitive matches under Ian Baraclough since then, San Marino provided inviting opponents for O’Neill’s return as they are now without a win in all of their 167 competitive outings and sitting in 211th in the Fifa rankings.
Impressive performances from Northern Ireland debutants
Youngsters Shea Charles and Conor Bradley both delivered hugely mature and impressive performances for Northern Ireland, while Everton youngster Isaac Price joined Cameron McGeehan in making a senior international debut in the second half.
Charles’ first goal
Charles’ opener arrived in the 24th minute and it was a finish applied with the swagger and technique of a man high in confidence in front of goal, having scored 18 times for Bolton Wanderers so far this season.
Assist from Shea Charles
Man City teenager Shea Charles, who looked composed throughout while deputising for injured captain Steven Davis in the deep-lying midfield role – found the ever-willing Conor Washington with a fine pass into the right channel and he delivered an excellent first-time low cross for his strike partner.
Charles’ second goal
Charles headed home his second 10 minutes after the break, once again being in the right place at the right time to meet an excellent Jamal Lewis cross from the left with a close-range header that seemed to wrong-foot Benedettini who got an outstretched hand on the ball but could not keep it out.
Importance of a striker in form
It led to choruses of ‘Dion’s on fire’ – a twist on an old favourite that many will no doubt remember from the Euro 2016 finals – and proved definitively how important it is for an international team to have a striker scoring goals regularly at club level.
Timely opening goal
Charles’ opening goal was very timely for the visiting team, who until then had been well on top but were frustrated as a number of set-piece moves failed to come off while a few players seemed to have problems staying up as they slipped to the ground.
Chances for both teams
Paddy McNair had the only significant chance before the first goal came – apart from a scare from the hosts when Filippo Berardi went through and forced a save from Bailey Peacock-Farrell before being flagged offside – but his downward back-post header from a George Saville cross was well saved by goalkeeper Elia Benedettini.
Best chance falls to Lewis
However, the best chance for Northern Ireland to double their lead fell to wing-back Lewis just before the break but the Newcastle United man unsuccessfully attempted to turn Dion Charles’ perfect cross on to his left foot, when he looked set to shoot with his right in front of goal.
Quiet second half
The second half somewhat petered out during the final half hour, though there was a scare for Northern Ireland when Nicola Nanni went through and scored for the visitors in the 67th minute, but the flag went up for offside once his shot found the net.
Match ends, San Marino 0, Northern Ireland 2.
Second Half ends, San Marino 0, Northern Ireland 2.
Attempt missed. Lorenzo Lazzari (San Marino) right footed shot from outside the box misses to the right following a set piece situation.
Foul by Shea Charles (Northern Ireland).
Lorenzo Lazzari (San Marino) wins a free kick in the attacking half.
Jordan Thompson (Northern Ireland) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Foul by Danilo Rinaldi (San Marino).
Foul by Conor Bradley (Northern Ireland).
Matteo Vitaioli (San Marino) wins a free kick on the left wing.
Substitution, San Marino. Matteo Vitaioli replaces Nicola Nanni because of an injury.
Delay over. They are ready to continue.
Delay in match because of an injury Nicola Nanni (San Marino).
Substitution, Northern Ireland. Isaac Price replaces Ciaron Brown.
Foul by Cameron McGeehan (Northern Ireland).
Nicola Nanni (San Marino) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Offside, Northern Ireland. Ciaron Brown tries a through ball, but Josh Magennis is caught offside.
Craig Cathcart (Northern Ireland) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Foul by Danilo Rinaldi (San Marino).
Shea Charles (Northern Ireland) wins a free kick in the attacking half.
Foul by Michael Battistini (San Marino).