San Marino 0 Northern Ireland 2
Dion Charles’s first international goals earned Northern Ireland a 2-0 Euro 2024 qualifying victory over San Marino as Michael O’Neill made a winning start to his second spell in charge.
Bolton striker Charles broke his international duck when he prodded home in the 24th minute, and then headed home a second 10 minutes into the second half as Northern Ireland opened their Group H account with three points.
Charles had gone 13 internationals without scoring before this match, but the goals were little surprise given he has bagged 18 in 42 appearances for Bolton this term. Northern Ireland, who have been seeking a reliable goalscorer for several years, will hope this was just the beginning.
O’Neill, who returned in December to the job he left in 2020, had to wait until the 10th match of his first reign for a victory but there was no such delay against a side last in the Fifa rankings and yet to win a competitive international, this being their 167th attempt.
This was not the resounding win so many sides – Northern Ireland included – have enjoyed in Serravalle over the years, but O’Neill’s only concern was getting three points to kick-start the campaign and to that end, this was a case of job done before Sunday’s home match against Finland.
It took only three minutes for the 1,000 travelling fans to call for a wave from the man who led them to Euro 2016 and the 53-year-old willingly obliged.
Northern Ireland started slowly, enjoying plenty of the ball but offering little penetration. O’Neill went with a 3-5-2 system rather than his preferred 4-3-3, a decision perhaps enforced given the lengthy injury list which had denied him the services of so many veterans of his previous reign.
Charles’s Bolton team-mate Conor Bradley was the brightest spark but too many of the early moves broke down before Northern Ireland could get the ball into the box as San Marino, who included 40-year-old debutant Roberto Di Maio in defence after he gained citizenship in January, stood up well early on.
The first test for home goalkeeper Elia Benedettini came in the 14th minute when he clawed aside a header from Paddy McNair as the Middlesbrough man met George Saville’s cross.
The deadlock was broken when Northern Ireland used a quick free-kick to shift the ball right and Conor Washington sent in a low cross for his strike partner to turn in at the far post.
Saville should have done better when Bradley broke clear of his man to race into space down the right, but he turned the cross over the bar, while Benedetti did well to turn a powerful Bradley strike around the post just before the break.
Northern Ireland would have welcomed a second to settle the game before the break but had to wait until the 55th minute, when Jamal Lewis sent in a deep cross from the left and Charles stooped to head home.
Northern Ireland looked energised but could not capitalise. Bradley had another shot charged down, Washington saw one turned wide for a corner and then fired another over.
San Marino fans thought they had pulled one back, a rare goal to celebrate, just after the hour, but the assistant waited until Nicola Nanni had beaten Bailey Peacock-Farrell before raising the flag.
There were debuts from the bench for Cameron McGeehan, the 27-year-old Ostend midfielder, and Everton teenager Isaac Price before the finish but the game petered out in the final 10 minutes as the Green and White Army serenaded O’Neill from the sidelines.