Northern Ireland left frustrated after drab goalless draw with Malta

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Northern Ireland have now gone for 1023 minutes without scoring a friendly away goal, but the fact 12 games have now passed without a win is far more significant.

Deploying a curiously defensive 4-5-1, with the justification that this was a warm up for next month’s World Cup qualifier against Russia, Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill should have double-checked who they were playing.

Malta could have been there for the taking early on, but it wasn’t until an hour into the game that O’Neill made the changes he could have started with, not least of which was bringing the much-touted Billy McKay on.

They were desperately short of a cutting edge.

Malta took their opportunities to slip into the game and showed vigour in the early stages.

Northern Ireland were let off the hook when Edward Herrera’s six-yard effort was hit straight at stand-in ‘keeper Alan Mannus and Michael Mifsud’s nutmeg past Aaron Hughes was dealt with on the other side.

Niall McGinn, Steven Davis and Will Grigg offered versatility but there was nothing by way of incision.

Davis sent a speculative effort wide of the post on 13 minutes, before an unchallenged Grigg sent his shot wide.

Daniel Lafferty’s headed goal was disallowed after referee Yordanov Nikolay spotted pushing in the box.

Off the back of a 1-0 victory against Lichtenstein, at least this Malta team have proven they can win a game. At this stage, Northern Ireland merely have players who are capable, but unproven.

It could only have been McGinn’s pace and delivery which left him, once again, out on the wing rather than in the striker’s role he has at Aberdeen.

He ably ran in to meet Grigg, but constantly floated toward the centre. At other times, the Walsall man was left completely isolated. Either way, testing McGinn up top should be on O’Neill’s list of future experiments.

By the interval, the home side had recorded seven shots with four on target and Northern Ireland, besides if counting the disallowed goal, had put none of their three efforts on target.

Just after the hour mark O’Neill threw Billy McKay on for Shane Ferguson, keeping all his attack-minded options on the pitch.

By 69 minutes, Northern Ireland were looking slightly brighter but exposed. Herrera, with four opposition players around him, shot from inside the area and Mannus stooped to clear the danger.

Fielding his third change, O’Neill brought on Pat McCourt, virtually playing every attacking card.

Josh Magennis was treated to a run out five minutes from normal time, replacing Grigg, but he wasn’t on for long enough to make much of an impact.

Seemingly, however, 93 minutes isn’t long enough for any of them to do so.

Malta: Hogg, Muscat, Scriberras, Agius (Camilleri, 46), Dimech, Failla, Fenech, Mifsud (Vella, 89), Cohen, Schembri (Bajada, 90), Herrera.

Subs not used: Haber, Zerefa, Ryan, Borg.

Northern Ireland: Mannus, Lafferty, McAuley, J Evans (Cathcart, 46) Davis, Grigg (Magennis, 86), Brunt, McGinn, Bruce (McCourt, 71), Ferguson (McKay, 62), Hughes.

Subs not used: Doherty, Shiels, C Evans, Carson, McGurk.

Referee: Yordanov Nikolay (Bulgaria)