Dowie leads from front while defence holds firm

Northern Ireland 2 Albania 0
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The Independent Online
When Iain Dowie starts scoring goals in clusters you know something has to be wrong with the opposition. Albania, once regarded as the most backward country in Europe, is still somewhat retarded in a footballing sense, but Saturday's victory - their first in World Cup Group Nine - was not without plaudits for the home team.

Goals are a precious commodity and it will have done Northern Ireland's confidence no harm to have scored a couple and have created enough chances for two or three more. Dowie, who had not scored for his country in 13 months, was particularly unfortunate not to be celebrating a hat-trick, one header coming back off the inside of a post. That chance, like the run-up to the second goal, came courtesy of a Michael Hughes delivery, and his 84th-minute booking for a foul was a blot not only on his copybook but more importantly, Ireland's also. Like Kevin Horlock, he is now suspended for the crucial home match against Portugal next March and his creativity will be sorely missed.

Midfield is a developing strength of Ireland's, what with the bustling energy of Leicester City's Neil Lennon and the similarly industrious Steve Lomas, who seems to possess the ability to raise his game at this level.

Probably the biggest plus for Bryan Hamilton, the manager, was the continued security of his three-man central defence. It is essential that a team such as Northern Ireland finds a way of compensating for its obvious deficiencies. Defensive discipline has been a trait of the best British teams down the years and while Hamilton's predecessor, Billy Bingham, was well blessed in midfield it was upon the bedrock of defenders that their success was founded. The same could be said of the Republic, even if Jack Charlton's back four tended to bypass their midfield altogether.

Momentary defensive lapses against Ukraine and Armenia have probably already forfeited any chance Northern Ireland had of qualifying for the French finals but the platform for a brighter future is now in place. The fluency of the wing-backs is of paramount importance in such a system and the inexperienced Ian Nolan and Horlock did not disappoint. As Hamilton said: "In Germany they were good defenders. Today they were good attackers."

Against a side such as Portugal, whose attack tends to be rather hit- and-miss, it is essential that the Irish stand firm. If they do, one goal from the suddenly prolific Dowie could suffice, having moved within three goals of Colin Clarke's all-time record of 13 with his brace here.

Dowie overtook George Best on Saturday, which should be the first and last time he is ever mentioned in the same breath as the Belfast boy, never mind in such flattering terms.

Goals: Dowie (12) 1-0; Dowie (21) 2-0.

NORTHERN IRELAND (5-3-2): Wright (Reading); Nolan (Sheffield Wednesday), Taggart (Bolton Wanderers), Hill (Leicester City), Hunter (Reading), Horlock (Swindon Town); Morrow (Arsenal), Lomas (Manchester City), Lennon (Leicester City); Hughes (West Ham United), Dowie (West Ham United). Substitutes: McMahon (Stoke City) for Morrow, 72 mins; James Quinn (Blackpool) for Dowie, 90.

ALBANIA (4-4-2): Nallbani (Tirana); Dede (Tirana), Shulku (Partizani Tirane), R Vata (Apollon), Malko (Luchnja); Kola (Panathinaikos), Haxhi (Shqiponja Gjirokaster), Fakaj (Flamurtari Vlore), F Vata (Samobar); Rraklli (Hertha Berlin), Paco (Flamurtari Vlore). Substitutes: Tole (Partizani Tirane) for Dede, 34; Fraholli (Lushnja) for Haxhi, 37.

Referee: A Georgiou (Cyprus).

Bookings: Northern Ireland: Horlock, Hughes. Albania: Shulku.

Man of the match: Dowie. Attendance: 7,935.