Brilliant blank as Northern Ireland hold European champions Italy in Belfast
European champions Italy must go into the World Cup qualifying play-offs after being held to a goalless draw by brilliant Northern Ireland at Windsor Park.
In the best performance of the Ian Baraclough era, Northern Ireland frustrated their illustrious visitors for 90 minutes – with Conor Washington unable to take a last-minute chance to snatch a famous victory.
With Switzerland beating Bulgaria 4-0 to top Group C, Italy – who failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup after going into the play-offs – must settle for second place while Northern Ireland made sure of third.
There were superb performances across the pitch from Northern Ireland, though the best of them came from Jonny Evans.
The Leicester defender was imperious at the heart of defence, his performances this week showing what Northern Ireland were missing as he sat out the crunch part of the qualifying campaign through injury.
Stuart Dallas was fit to start, having missed training on Sunday, but Paddy McNair – who had pulled up with a hamstring problem in Friday’s 1-0 win over Lithuania – was replaced in defence by Tom Flanagan.
Baraclough had emphasised the need to start players getting regular club football against Lithuania, but three days later restored Jamal Lewis – who has played only six minutes of Premier League football at Newcastle this season – to his side ahead of Shane Ferguson.
Gavin Whyte also came in, with both selections showing Baraclough was looking for pace with which to hit Italy on the break as his side defended deeply, his preferred 3-5-2 formation in reality a 5-3-2.
For 90 minutes it worked as a flat Italy only occasionally threatened.
There was one early scare when Lorenzo Insigne’s lovely curling ball caught out Lewis and allowed Giovanni Di Lorenzo to get through on goal.
The Napoli full-back has scored in the last two World Cup qualifiers but saw his shot comfortably saved by Bailey Peacock-Farrell.
For 20 minutes, Italy could not get another sight of goal. Insigne shot straight at Peacock-Farrell just before the half hour before Federico Chiesa failed to get enough power on a low shot from a tight angle.
Flanagan had look composed but one wayward pass was almost punished in the 37th minute as Domenico Berardi played in Insigne, but Craig Cathcart did enough to put him off.
Moments later, Chiesa cut in from the left to bring a great save from Peacock-Farrell, who was not to know the flag was up.
Insigne flashed a shot just wide three minutes into the second half, but Northern Ireland responded with their best moment of the match to that point, patiently working space for Whyte to send in a deep cross which Lewis pulled back for George Saville, who forced a diving save from Gianluigi Donnarumma.
With news coming through from Lucerne that Switzerland were leading, Italy sought to ramp up the pressure.
Berardi’s low free-kick was held at the near post by Peacock-Farrell, Chiesa bent a shot narrowly the wrong side of the post before Peacock-Farrell again denied Di Lorenzo.
But they could not find a way through. At the other end Washington, on as a substitute, broke the offside trap and ran at goal, but his low shot was deflected behind.
Washington then sparked another break, with Lewis pulling the ball back for Dallas, but he could not find the target from the edge of the area.
The biggest twist almost came in the last minute of the 90. Donnarumma raced off his line but Washington beat him to the ball, powering towards goal, but he scuffed his shot and Leonardo Bonucci was able to block it on the line.
Victory was not to be, but Windsor Park nevertheless greeted the final whistle with an almighty roar on a superb night.
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