Irish suffering home discomforts

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The Independent Online
Northern Ireland 0 Portugal 0

It was probably just as well that Northern Ireland failed to go that extra yard for World Cup victory against superior opposition at Windsor Park on Saturday. Ultimate disappointment - for that was always their fate in Group Nine - would only have been all the harder to bear.

Indeed, it would have been just like the Irish to have won this game: achieving improbable results has never been their problem; it's those mere formalities, like a home game against Armenia, which are the tricky bit.

Even in the halcyon days of Billy Bingham's team, when they qualified for the latter stages of two consecutive World Cups, they were a paradoxical lot. In the 1984 European Championship they beat West Germany home and away in their qualifying group and still managed to miss the bus to the finals, principally because of stumbling blocks no bigger than Albania and Turkey.

At least in those days they could be relied upon to win their home games, which nowadays is an anathema to Irish sides. Even allowing for the fact that they are not the side they were, you are not going to achieve qualification by winning only a third of your home games, as Northern Ireland have done over the last few years, no matter how well you travel abroad.

Northern Ireland's last and only home game - against Germany in August - doesn't hold out much hope of improving that ratio. They will have time to reflect on such shortcomings during the long journey to the Ukraine - one of four remaining away ties - where on Wednesday they will face a side who were responsible for slipping the banana skin beneath their feet in the first place.

Without a sharpshooter of note (a familiar story north and south of the border) Saturday's match was always liable to end in a goalless draw partly because the Portuguese, while pretty as a picture in midfield are a quite dreadful sight in front of goal. The dependable Tommy Wright in Northern Ireland's goal needed no more than what, for him, was fairly routine shot- stopping to foil Sergio Conceicao and Joao Pinto, otherwise promising Portuguese moves fizzled out with little or no help from a vigilant Irish defence.

It is no wonder gifted midfielders such as Paulo Sousa and Rui Costa take their creative ability abroad. The return to fitness of Paulo Sousa was bad news for Manchester United as well as Northern Ireland; on this form the Borussia Dortmund player will pose a huge threat to the English champions in next month's European Cup semi-final.

Ever the optimist, Bryan Hamilton, the Northern Ireland manager, still sees the group as "going down right to the wire", but he was correct about one thing: Saturday's draw wasn't "a big result".

NORTHERN IRELAND (3-5-2): Wright (Manchester City); Hill (Leicester City), Morrow (Queen's Park Rangers), Taggart (Bolton Wanderers); Gillespie (Newcastle United), Magilton (Southampton), Lomas (Manchester City), Lennon (Leicester City), Nolan (Sheffield Wednesday); James Quinn (Blackpool), Dowie (West Ham United). Substitutes: McMahon (Stoke City) for Quinn, 68.

PORTUGAL (4-4-1-1): Baia (Barcelona); Dimas (Juventus), Jorge Costa (Porto), Couto (Barcelona), Paulino Santos (Porto); Sergio Conceicao (Porto), Oceano (Sporting Lisbon), Rui Costa (Fiorentina), Paulo Sousa (Borussia Dortmund); Figo (Barcelona); Joao Pinto (Benfica). Substitutes: Martins (Sporting Lisbon) for Oceano, 60; Cadete (Celtic) for Dimas, 60.

Referee: G Cesari (Italy).

Bookings: Northern Ireland: Quinn. Portugal: Oceano, Couto, Figo.

Man of the match: Paulo Sousa. Attendance: 10,500.