URUGUAY 1 N IRELAND 0
Northern Ireland showed England they have little to fear from a Uruguay side lacking Luis Suarez as they battled to an honourable 1-0 defeat in Montevideo.
With 78 places separating the teams in the FIFA rankings and Michael O’Neill’s side far from full strength, La Celeste were expected to roll the visitors over with ease en route to the World Cup.
Instead, they edged – and pocketed the little known Copa Antel trophy – thanks to a solitary second-half strike from substitute Christian Stuani as Northern Ireland stood firm against their opponents’ weight of possession.
Edinson Cavani is a star in his own right at Paris St Germain and Diego Forlan is a proven goalscorer but neither man could replicate the kind of magic Suarez brings to so many occasions.
On this evidence, England would fancy themselves to keep both shackled when they meet in Brazil next month.
Either might still have scored had Roy Carroll not produced a wonderful double save in the 32nd minute and the veteran keeper played a big part in keeping the score down.
But there were impressive showings across the board for O’Neill’s men, with Doncaster’s Luke McCullough among those to emerge in credit on a tough debut assignment.
The game settled quickly into a pattern, Uruguay seeing plenty of the ball and rolling it up and down looking for Northern Ireland to lose their shape.
It was an offer the visitors were not eager to accept and O’Neill’s men kept tight and marked close.
McCullough, thrust in at the age of just 20 and not yet a regular at Doncaster, had a nervy moment early on when he slipped attempting to turn Christian Rodriguez but otherwise heads were calm.
Southampton’s Gaston Ramirez, who had blazed over under pressure from Chris Baird in the 13th minute, was first to threaten the stalemate, powering past a couple of green shirts before dragging a low shot wide of the far post.
Northern Ireland were hardly set up to counter with numbers and when Niall McGinn did get the chance to make a break he was halted abruptly by Diego Lugano’s sliding tackle.
Walter Gargano betrayed a little impatience as the half progressed at the same pace, chancing his arm with a hopeful 30-yarder then going in the referee’s book for a late challenge on Sammy Clingan.
Uruguay upped the ante in the 15 minutes before the break but could not make the breakthrough.
Sebastian Coates might have done better when he rose highest to meet Forlan’s corner, but it was Carroll who did most to preserve the scoreline.
When Oliver Norwood’s loose pass left his side short at the back, Cavani looked certain to score with a placed shot towards the bottom corner.
But Carroll’s full-length dive pushed it into the right channel, where Forlan was waiting to pounce.
His follow-up was destined to creep inside the post from a tight angle, but Carroll raced back and clawed to safety.
It cost the 36-year-old a nasty collision with the woodwork but it was a price well worth paying.
He stood firm again when Cavani unfurled an elegant scissor-kick, though an offside flag would have saved Northern Ireland anyway.
Carroll almost saw his good work undone on the stroke of half-time when he lost sight of a swerving shot from Forlan, but an instinctive right glove spared his blushes.
Uruguay replaced Coates and Forlan with Jose Gimenez and Stuani and it was the latter who grabbed the opener after 62 minutes.
There had been warning signs, the busy Corry Evans and Clingan both booked attempting to firefight in the middle of the park.
The goal came when Rodriguez skipped towards the byline and cut back towards Cavani.
He took a heavy first touch but made amends by finding Stuani at the near post, where he poked home ahead of Baird.
The goal settled Uruguay as they began to hold court further up the pitch, though a string of substitutions provided regular breaks in play.
Amongst the changes, Dundee United’s Paul Paton and Liverpool’s Ryan McLaughlin became the second and third debutants of the night for Northern Ireland. McLaughlin, a right-back by trade, was deployed in an unusually advanced role and had one half-chance at glory which he skied.
Abel Hernandez came closer than most to turning possession into a second goal, glancing just wide from eight yards after a perfectly-timed run, but the margin was a fair one for both sides.