Northern Ireland's goal drought continued last night but they managed hold off the might of Spain and earn a deserved goalless draw in their Euro 2004 qualifier at Windsor Park.
Northern Ireland had failed to find the target in 882 minutes and were without a win in 10 games going into last night's game but their manager Sammy McIlroy nevertheless decided on a cautious approach, naming Glentoran's Andrew Smith as a lone striker. McIlroy also gave competitive debuts to four players - Chris Baird, Tommy Doherty, Steve Jones as well as Smith.
McIlroy had warned his team to "beware of the wounded tiger" after Spain had been beaten by Greece on Saturday and the visitors started at a fast pace in an attempt to find a winning mentality again. However, Northern Ireland almost took the lead after nine minutes when Doherty lobbed the Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas from 20 yards. They came close again after 14 minutes when Casillas blocked a header from George McCartney, after a free-kick from Peter Kennedy.
However the, Spaniards suddenly stepped up the pace and Northern Ireland goalkeeper Maik Taylor was forced to make good saves in quick succession from Raul, twice, and the impressive Joseba Etxeberria.
Northern Ireland continued to offer not only spirited resistance, but some stylish football and Doherty whipped in an instinctive effort which went wide of the post.
Spain were anxious to grab a goal in the second period with Ruben Baraja and Sergio both coming close, but Northern Ireland almost ended their goal drought in the 64th minute, when David Healy saw his shot turned away by Casillas.
NORTHERN IRELAND: Taylor (Fulham); Baird (Southampton), McCartney (Sunderland, A Hughes (Newcastle Utd), Kennedy (Watford), Griffin (Dundee Utd), D Johnson (Birmingham City), Doherty (Bristol City), Jones (Crewe Alexandra), Healy (Preston North End), A Smith (Glentoran). Substitutes: Carroll (Manchester Utd); Williams (Wimbledon), Toner (Leyton Orient), McVeigh (Norwich City), McCann (Cheltenham Town), Hamilton (Portadown), Elliott (Hull City).
SPAIN: Casillas (Real Madrid), Marchena (Valencia), Juanfran (Celta Vigo), Sergio (Deportivo La Coruña), Puyol (Barcelona), Ivan Helguera (Real Madrid), Raul (Real Madrid), Baraja (Valencia), Valeron (Deportivo La Coruña), Vicente (Valencia), Etxeberria (Athletic Bilbao). Substitutes: Cañizares (Valencia); Michel Salgado (Real Madrid), De Pedro (Real Sociedad), Morientes (Real Madrid), Raul Bravo (Real Madrid), Joaquin (Real Betis), Gabri (Barcelona).
Referee: C B Larsen (Denmark).
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