Football: Belfast deadlock

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The Independent Online
Northern Ireland 0

Portugal 0

Attendance: 9,392

A draw was not what Northern Ireland required to rescue their World Cup qualifying campaign, but they could take some satisfaction from holding the Group Nine leaders.

The point moved them up to second in the group on six points from five games, three behind Portugal, who have played six. However, Ukraine trail them only on goal difference and Germany by just one point, and both of those have played only three games.

Goalscoring has been the problem for Bryan Hamilton's side, so the return of Iain Dowie after his broken ankle was most welcome as Northern Ireland went into a crucial four-day period in which they also take on the Ukraine in Kiev on Wednesday. Given back the captaincy, Dowie, who scored both goals in the 2-0 victory over Albania in December, was paired with James Quinn for the first time as Hamilton signalled Northern Ireland's intention to attack.

Portugal, with only five goals in seven matches since Euro 96, and three of those in a qualifying win over Albania, opened with a series of attacks, but they were repelled before Vitor Baia in the Portugal goal was forced to collect a free-kick by Jim Magilton after Steve Lomas, now Dowie's team-mate at West Ham, had been fouled. The visitors' keeper then had to snatch up the ball as Dowie closed on Keith Gillespie's long pass.

Gillespie posed another early threat when he released Dowie down the right. He crossed for the unmarked Quinn inside the six-yard box, but the youngster's shot was weak and went straight to the goalkeeper. Portugal almost made the Irish pay for that miss when Joao Pinto, fed by Rui Costa, beat Gerry Taggart but pulled his shot wide with only Tommy Wright.

The tackles were flying in and the Sporting Lisbon midfielder Oceano was booked in the 20th minute for tripping the hard-working Lomas.

Portugal gradually took the upper hand and Figo met Joao Pinto's cross with a downward header that Hill did well to block, and then Figo, looking offside, raced on to Paulo Sousa's through ball, and hit a shot that Wright tipped over.

Quinn and Gillespie forced Vitor Baia into sharp saves just before the break, but after it Portugal again forced the pace. They made a double substitution after 61 minutes when the Celtic favourite, Jorge Cadete, joined Pedro Martins in the fray and they should have gone ahead moments later when Joao Pinto got behind the Irish defence and looked certain to score only for Wright to produce a superb block to beat away his hooked shot. Portugal were becoming more frustrated by the minute and Rui Costa was shown the yellow card in the 65th minute for an uncharacteristic foul on Lomas.

Northern Ireland: Wright (Manchester City, Nolan (Sheffield Wednesday), Morrow (Queen's Park Rangers), Hill (Leicester City), Taggart (Bolton), Lomas (West Ham), Gillespie (Newcastle United), Lennon (Leicester City), Dowie (West Ham), Magilton (Southampton), Quinn (Sunderland). Subs: McMahon (Stoke City) for Quinn, 68.

Portugal: Vitor Baia (Barcelona), Jorge Costa (Porto), Dimas (Juventus), Oceano (Sporting Lisbon), Fernando Couto (Barcelona), Paulo Sousa (Borussia Dortmund), Figo (Barcelona), Joao Vieira Pinto (Benfica), Sergio Conceicao (Porto), Rui Costa (Fiorentina), Paulinho Santos (Porto). Subs: Cadete (Celtic) for Oceano, 61; Martins (Sporting Lisbon) for Dimas, 61.

Referee: G Cesari (It).