Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 April 2014

Northern Ireland 0 Italy 0: Other nations could be green with envy

Kaleb Wilson

The quality of Northern Ireland's performance in their goalless draw against Italy might have left something to be desired.

But you could not fault the heart which gave Nigel Worthington's side another point in Euro 2012 qualifying Group C.

The energy of Steve Davies. The nous of Aaron Hughes. The tireless running of Warren Feeney. The skill of goalkeeper Maik Taylor. They were all qualities to admire as the Irish followed up their win away in Slovenia with another result which gives real hope that they could qualify for their first major tournament in 24 years, especially on a night when Estonia defeated Serbia to throw the group wide open.

It was 52 years and nine months since Italy had been at Windsor Park. That was a World Cup qualifier in which Jimmy McIlroy and Wilbur Cush scored the goals which defeated Italy 2-1.

The players went on to reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup that year, a feat which proved beyond Italy this summer in South Africa when they went as champions and were knocked out in the group stages following a 3-2 defeat by Slovakia.

Italy are under transition. Many of the big names have moved on. The average age has plummeted. But they still have 31-year-old Andrea Pirlo in the centre of midfield. Do not expect him to run past anyone but arguably there is no more precise passer in football.

He was the pivot on which Italy turned, the creative force around whom manager Cesare Prandelli hopes to build a new side. It was something of a midfield masterclass as he supplied the ammunition for front men Antonio Cassano and Marco Borriello.

Italy were quicker to the ball. They dominated possession. They were much improved from the sorry lot at the World Cup. Technically superior.

But we knew that. The Northern Irish were never going to outplay the Italians - even with a patriotic Windsor Park crowd behind them.

Yet this side are adept at surviving on scraps. And they should have gone in with the lead at half-time. They were denied a penalty when Daniele de Rossi clearly handed the ball in the penalty area and David Healy sent a six-yard header wide of the post when he had been found unmarked by Chris Brunt's cross.

With 35 goals in 81 internationals Healy is something of a hero in Northern Ireland football circles but if Northern Ireland fail to make it to Euro 2012 he will be haunted by that miss.

A word for Birmingham goalkeeper Taylor here who, seconds after Healy's miss, made a splendid block from Borriello.

Ultimately, however, they survived more by the goodwill of an Italian side who lacked the killer touch in front of goal.

Cassano, Pirlo, Borriello and Giampaolo Pazzini all should have done better as Italy swarmed forward in the second half.

Typically, however, they could have stolen it when Davies broke clear in the last minute only to see his shot saved.

Still, with the Faroe Islands to come on Tuesday, Northern Ireland remain unbeaten and Worthington has four points from his first two games. So far, so very good.