Football: No satisfaction for Northern Ireland: Albania 1 Northern Ireland 0

WORLD CUP FOOTBALL: Hopes for a grand finale from Hamilton's men fade with ignominious defeat at hands of Albanians
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Northern Ireland's World Cup campaign went from bad to worse yesterday when a goal by Altin Haxhi consigned them to defeat against an Albanian side obliged to play their "home" games away.

Last month's defeat by Germany put paid to Northern Ireland's hopes of reaching the finals in France, but they still have their seeding for the 2000 European Championships to worry about. Bryan Hamilton was hoping his side would finish ahead of Armenia in Group Nine, but that could now be a struggle.

The 69th-minute strike by Haxhi, a 22-year-old midfielder who plays his club football in Greece, means that the Irish could well have to win in Portugal next month to have a chance of overhauling Armenia.

It was Albania's first victory over Northern Ireland in eight attempts and their first of the qualifying campaign, but it was fully deserved. Forced to play in Switzerland because of continued civil unrest at home, they responded to noisy support from 2,600 fans, part of a substantial Albanian community here.

Igli Tare muscling his way past Pat McGibbon within 30 seconds of the start only to shoot over. Then Bledar Kola, the scorer of two penalties against Germany in April, cut in and hit a low, 20-yard drive past Tommy Wright, but it fizzed wide.

Northern Ireland should have taken the lead when Iain Dowie flicked on Steve Lomas' corner only for Keith Gillespie to pull his effort wide from barely 10 yards. But it was a nervous start by Hamilton's men, not surprising since injuries and suspension forced the manager to make six changes to the side beaten in Germany last month. - including the inexperienced pair McGibbon and Danny Griffin.

Their frustration showed when James Quinn was booked for a 21st-minute lunge at Arjan Peco and McGibbon followed suit six minutes later for a trip on Tare. Dowie did lift Irish spirits by heading another long Lomas throw against the post, but the West Ham man was ruled to have fouled Arjan Xhumba. Peco then became the third man to be booked in the space of nine minutes for tripping Lomas.

It took a fine save from Wright, diving low to his right, to keep the scores level when Tare fired in a low drive after swapping passes with Peco.

It was tough rearguard action for Northern Ireland, but they broke and should have gone ahead on the stroke of half-time when Lomas, captaining the side for the first time, failed to keep a close-range header down.

Hamilton made a positive switch at the break, bringing on Manchester United's Philip Mulryne to support Dowie and Quinn up front in place of Keith Rowland, but the Irish were soon on the back foot again as Wright twice saved from Kola.

The Irish responded when Gillespie crossed dangerously only for the Albanian goalkeeper, Foto Strakosha, to beat Lomas to the ball with a flying punch to clear the danger. Albania came again when Rudi Vata, the former Celtic player, carried the ball from defence and released Alban Bushaj with a fine pass, but the midfielder to shot over.

Albania finally went ahead after 69 minutes when Colin Hill's clearance fell to Haxhi 20 yards out. His shot beat Wright and went in off the post.

Horlock forced a fine save from Strakosha with a long-range blast, but at the other end Wright saved twice and Hill's tackle thwarted Albania again.

ALBANIA: Strakosha (Panionis); Tole (Partizan Tirana), Shulku (Apollon Athens), Xhumba (Heraklis), R Vata (Apollon Limassol), Fakaj (Flamurtari Vlore), Peco (SR Delemont), Haxhi (Panahaiki), Kola (Panathinaikos), Bushi (Apollon Athens), Tare (Fortuna Dusseldorf). Substitutes: Gallo (Tirana) for Haxhi, 65, Halili (Kastrioti Kruje) for Peco, 65.

NORTHERN IRELAND: Wright (Manchester City); Hill (Trelleborg), Griffin (St Johnstone), McGibbon (Wigan), Gillespie (Newcastle), Rowland (West Ham), Horlock (Manchester City), Lomas (West Ham), Lennon (Leicester), Quinn (Blackpool), Dowie (West Ham). Substitutes: McMahon (Stoke) for Quinn, 76, Mulryne (Manchester Utd) for Rowland, h-t, Sonner (Ipswich) for Lennon, 83.

Referee: R Philippi (Luxembourg).

Bulgaria became the 10th country to qualify for next year's World Cup finals in France when they beat Russia 1-0 in Sofia yesterday to establish an unassailable four-point lead over the Russians in group five with one match to play. Trifon Ivanov scored the only goal.