Football: Wright salvages Irish pride

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The Independent Online
Northern Ireland 0

Portugal 0

Attendance: 9,392

Northern Ireland produced a battling performance to frustrate the Group Nine leaders Portugal, but this was the result that neither team wanted.

It was typical of their frustrating qualifying campaign that a side who could draw in Germany, once again failed to win at home. Four matches here have brought them only five points, the first of them resulting in a 1-0 defeat by Ukraine. Sergei Rebrov, who scored a late winner that day, claimed the only goal yesterday as the Ukrainians beat Albania in a game moved to Granada, Spain to avoid Albania's domestic troubles. Ukraine now trail Portugal only on goal difference and provide Northern Ireland's opponents, in Kiev on Wednesday. Germany lie in fourth on five points from three games.

The Irish opened with their usual gusto and forced the Portuguese into desperate defending as Iain Dowie and James Quinn forged an impressive attacking partnership in their first outing together. The home side's pressure should have realised a goal in the fifth minute when Gillespie fed Dowie down the right and his cross found the unmarked Quinn, but the Blackpool youngster scuffed his shot at Baia from close range.

Portugal, despite going into the game with a record of only five goals in seven matches since Euro 96, soon began to show their attacking quality as well. Joao Pinto dragged his shot wide from 16 yards after being fed by Rui Costa and shrugging off Gerry Taggart, and then Taggart had to produce a last-ditch clearance when Rui Costa and Luis Figo opened up the home side before the full-back Dimas swung a long-range shot wide.

They had furious appeals for a penalty waved away by the Italian referee, Graziano Cesari, when Figo outpaced Ian Nolan down the right and cut inside only to be seemingly dragged down by the Sheffield Wednesday defender. Figo then had a close-range header blocked by Colin Hill before forcing Wright into a quite brilliant save.

The contest threatened to boil over and Quinn and Fernando Couto were in the 59th minute after a touchline flare-up. That was the cue for Portugal to make a double substitution, coach Artur Jorge sending on the Celtic favourite, Jorge Cadete, and Pedro Martins in place of Oceano and Dimas. With the Irish still coming to terms with the changes, it took another remarkable save by Wright to keep them level, racing out to block Joao Pinto with the defence ball-watching.

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).

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