Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 April 2014

In Pictures: Life’s a pitch for Northern Ireland in Albania

Albania 1 Northern Ireland 0

Northern Ireland’s abysmal away form continues

Yet another defeat on the road and this was poor in Tirana.

Northern Ireland have now only won three times away from home in their last 22 internationals.

Played on an appalling pitch, in a decrepit stadium, left over from the communist days, Northern Ireland, especially in the first half were outplayed and outclassed, by a team 57 places below us in the FIFA standings.

This was a makeshift team due to all the withdrawals and the match was played on a surface that resembled a bog — it simply wasn’t conducive to playing football — but Worthington expected better and was badly let down.

Albania adapted better to the conditions and fully deserved their victory.

A sensational first half free kick from Ervin Skela settled this encounter.

Just hours before the game Northern Ireland were rocked with Sammy Clingan’s late withdrawal due to a virus.

Michael O’Connor deputized in the centre of midfield alongside Steven Davis.

That brought the number of internationals ruled out through either injury or unavailability for this game to a staggering NINE.

With only four fit defenders Worthington started young Andy Little at right back with fellow 20 year-old Ryan McGivern on the left flank. George McCartney and Stephen Craigan were paired in the centre.

Niall McGinn, Steve Davis, O’Connor and Grant McCann made up a four man midfield with Kyle Lafferty and restored David Healy, winning his 80th cap, up front.

Northern Ireland just couldn’t get started — they were as brutal as the pitch in the first half.

Albania were fired up and were hungrier for the ball.

A cross from Ansi Aagolli on two minutes found Erjon Bogdani free in the area but the Chievo striker couldn’t steer the ball past Taylor.

How apt, considering the pitch, if he had scored.

Klodian Duro then, after a pull back, blazed his effort over the bar.

Skela’s free kick from 24 yards was tipped over by Taylor for a corner.

However he was only warming up as four minutes later, after McCartney had given away a free kick, the Tus Koblenz striker struck a fantastic unstoppable shot into the top corner.

After his earlier knock to the head which went unnoticed, Lafferty was a raging bull and received a yellow card on 27 minutes for dissent by Bosnian referee Elmir Pilav.

He joined O’Connor in the book, who’d been cautioned moments before the goal for a late challenge on captain Altin Lala.

This was scrappy and unattractive but hardly unsurprising on just an awful pitch.

Northern Ireland couldn’t even muster a shot on target. Albania goalkeeper Isli Hidi was a virtual spectator in the first half.

Dean Shiels and Corry Evans, who only flew in yesterday morning after playing for the Under-21’s in San Marino, were brought on at half time to replace Niall McGinn and Michael O’Connor respectively.

They added spark to Northern Ireland’s play and at last Worthington’s men were starting to create opportunities.

Healy tangled with Agolli on 56 minutes and wrestled on the ground but as it was a friendly both players escaped a booking.

Stephen Craigan was unfortunate not to open his international goalscoring account five minutes later. A corner from McCann was met by the Motherwell defender however his header hit the bar.

Worthington gave Coleraine striker Rory Patterson his international debut when he replaced the disappointing Lafferty while the 8,000 locals were delighted to see Sunderland captain Lorik Cana introduced to the fray.

Taylor made a decent save from a powerful Cana header but that was his last involvement in the game as Partick’s Jonny Tuffey replaced the Birmingham goalkeeper on 71 minutes.

The armband was handed to Craigan, winning his 46th cap, and moments later for the second time, the new skipper hit the woodwork.

A corner came in from McCann, it was cleared to Craigan who smacked the ball against the post. Patterson’s blistering follow-up shot was well saved by Hidi and then McGivern, Little and Healy all tried to direct it into the net but to no avail. Patterson was making an impact and he was soon partnered by Andy Kirk, who replaced the ineffective Healy.

There was a big improvement in the second half and Northern Ireland forced plenty of corners but just couldn’t manufacture an equalising goal.

This was Northern Ireland’s fourth match in Tirana — you can be assured none of Worthington’s players will ever want to be in a squad that makes a fifth visit to the Albanian capital.

ALBANIA: Hidi, Lila, Dallku, Curri, Vangjeli, Duro, Lala, Bulku, Skela, Agolli, Bogdani. Subs: Begaj, Bakaj, Kapllani, Salihi, Hyka, Vila, Cana

NORTHERN IRELAND: Taylor, Little, McGivern, Craigan, McCartney, McGinn, O’Connor, Davis, McCann, Healy, Lafferty. Subs: Tuffey, Carson, Kirk, Shiels, Patterson, Evans

Referee: Elmir Pilav (Bosnia)