Football: Lennon salvages hard-earned point

NORTHERN IRELAND needed a win to join Turkey and Finland at the top of Group Three of the European Championship qualifiers, but against the section's bottom side that task was beyond them last night's.

Moldova, neat and incisive, took the lead twice and, but for the dismissal of their most creative player, they might even have gone on to win the game. Nevertheless, they will make the long journey home satisfied with their first point of the campaign.

A draw at least took the home side above Germany and into third place, but that will be scant consolation for the Belfast crowd who had hoped for a commanding victory.

With Newcastle's Keith Gillespie looking busy on the right flank, the home side kept the visitors pressed back in the early stages, but without creating any chances. It was the Moldovans who had the first serious attempt on goal, with a long-range shot from Sergei Stroenko just missing the target.

A header by the ever-willing Iain Dowie, from a Keith Rowland free-kick, was pushed over the bar by Sergei Dinov as Northern Ireland got one on target at last. In the 22nd minute, though, they were caught cold at the other end.

A long throw from the left flank by Alexander Curtianu was flicked on by Sergei Clescenco and Vladimir Gaidamasciuc took advantage of some hesitancy by the debutant full-back, Peter Kennedy, to steer the ball into the net.

The game, and the crowd's mood, became increasingly bad-tempered and four players were booked before half-time - three Moldovans plus Gillespie for retaliation.

Not surprisingly, there was a greater sense of urgency about the home side after the interval, and they drew level after 49 minutes, Gillespie beat his full-back and his cross was met by Dowie with a powerful header which left Dinov helpless.

If the Windsor Park faithful thought that the equaliser would be the cue for their side to take command, they were in for a shock. After 57 minutes Moldova were in front again. The clever Curtianu stroked a fine pass through a large hole in the Irish defence and Ion Tistemitanu crashed a fierce shot past Alan Fettis.

The Moldovan defence was just as fragile, though, and Northern Ireland were level again within three minutes. A bad defensive header allowed Kennedy to nod the ball across goal and Neil Lennon slid it over the line from close range.

Moldova were reduced to 10 men three minutes later, when the volatile Curtianu received his second yellow card for a bad foul on Steve Lomas.

Despite their numerical advantage, Laurie McMenemy's men could not contrive a winner. Gillespie, from long-range, and Steve Morrow, with a poorly directed shot on the turn, came closest.

"We haven't lost, which is a plus," the Northern Ireland manager said. "The game could have got away from us. It's a very tight group - but we're still in there with a chance."

NORTHERN IRELAND (4-4-2): Fettis (Blackburn Rovers); Griffin (St Johnstone), Patterson (Dundee Utd), Morrow (QPR), Kennedy (Watford); Gillespie (Newcastle Utd), Lomas (West Ham), Lennon (Leicester City), Rowland (QPR); Dowie (QPR), M Hughes (Wimbledon). Substitutes: Gray (Luton Town), for Rowland, 78; McCarthy (Birmingham City) for Gillespie, 87.

MOLDOVA (3-6-1): Dinov (Constructorul Chisinau); Fistican (Zimbru Chisinau), Stroenko (Tiligul Tiraspol), Tistemitanu (Zimbru Chisinau); Gaidamasciuc (Tiligul Tiraspol), Rebeja (Zimbru Chisinau), Curtianu (Zenit St Petersburg), Epureanu (Zimbru Chisinau), Guzun (Nistru Otaci), Stratulat (Nistru Otaci); Clescenco (Zenit St Petersburg). Substitutes: Sukharev (Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk) for Stratulat 61; Pusca (Constructorul Chisinau) for Guzun 66; Mayevich (Seriff Tiraspol) for Tistimitanu, 86.

Referee: V Hrinak (Slovakia).

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