Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill questions penalty in Russia defeat
Michael O'Neill was left to nurse a sense of injustice after N.Ireland's defeat by Russia in their World Cup qualifier.
Last Updated: 07/09/12 8:07pm
The visitors were heavy underdogs for the Group F opener at Lokomotiv Stadium but Viktor Fayzulin's 30th minute effort was the only difference between the sides with 12 minutes remaining.
At that stage, O'Neill was still harbouring hopes of a late smash and grab - a hope that disappeared when the referee awarded a spot-kick against Craig Cathcart.
The Blackpool defender did not appear to make any meaningful contact with Alexander Kokorin but also found himself booked.
Roman Shirokov slotted the penalty into the bottom corner to allow Fabio Capello's side a comfortable conclusion to the match.
And O'Neill was left thinking his team had been harshly treated, as he said: "I felt at 1-0 we were well in the game and that the penalty - a very soft penalty - killed the game for us.
"I was very surprised by the decision. My initial reaction was that the referee had booked the striker for a theatrical fall.
"There looked to be no contact whatsoever for the penalty but the pitch was very bad so maybe he lost his footing because of that.
"The referee was very fussy towards us throughout the night. The lads didn't deserve that, they deserved to stay in the game."
Northern Ireland's disappointment could have been even greater had key defender Jonny Evans been injured following an unusual incident on the stroke of half-time.
Evans lashed the ball into the crowd after being judged offside with the last kick of the first period and immediately went down in pain before hobbling from the pitch.
A hasty evaluation of the ankle he had surgery on over the summer saw him cleared to continue and O'Neill was cheered by the player's commitment.
Sir Alex Ferguson
The notoriously-protective Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson may yet have a say in Evans' availability for Tuesday night's home clash against Luxembourg
But O'Neill said: "We examined Jonny thoroughly at half-time. I thought he showed magnificent character to play the 90 minutes and we think he'll be okay for Tuesday. It was just a knock.
"Right through the team there were some big, big performances but Jonny's performance with the knock typified the spirit we are hopefully building in this group of players. That will be very important for us going forward."
Despite defeat, O'Neill believes his side showed all the core values he was looking for at the start of the new campaign.
"Russia are a very strong team, we knew that from the analysis we did," he said. "The team is very similar to the team under Dick Advocaat and we knew they would cause us problems.
"We could have been better in possession, the players know that, but I would rather focus on positives - the discipline, the shape and the work-rate of the team was fantastic."