There have been some famous nights at Windsor Park over the years, and Northern Ireland had another chance to turn over a giant of world football when Cesare Prandelli’s Italy visited Belfast for tonight’s European Championships 2012 qualifying clash. The Italians sat atop Group C after winning their opening games against Estonia and the Faroe Islands. Ireland’s win over Slovenia got them off to a flying start too.
The home side were largely second best and will be delighted with a hard-earned point but the Azzurri must be cursing their profligacy in front of goal. They controlled the play for the first 85 minutes of the game but created very few clear opportunities and were unable to take them when they came along.
The visitors settled down quickly on what had the potential to be a treacherous evening in blustery Belfast but it was David Healy who missed a wonderful opportunity to put his side ahead on half an hour. Chris Brunt’s cross from deep found the Sunderland striker free just yards from goal and he couldn’t direct his header inside the post. Seconds later Marco Borriello forced Maik Taylor into his first save of the match and Antonio Cassano bent the rebound wide as the match burst into life.
It was Cassano and Andrea Pirlo who were pulling the strings for Italy as Nigel Worthington’s men worked hard to put the Azzurri under pressure on the ball at every opportunity. During the first half Ireland twice appealed for penalties for handballs by Giorgio Chiellini and Daniele De Rossi. Both shouts were ambitious but you’ve seen them given, as they say. The referee was entirely unmoved on both occasions.
The first half ended goalless with relatively little meaningful penalty area action having taken place at either end, but the Italians were comfortably on top and it was Northern Ireland’s defence that kept their opponents’ clear-cut chances down to a minimum before the break.
Pirlo teased Taylor back into action in the 48th minute by hitting a long distance free kick that moved in the air but was held well by the Birmingham stopper. A minute later Simone Pepe’s cross found Stefano Mauri, who was leaning back as he volleyed over from six yards. After an hour Borriello failed to make the most of a decent chance, swinging limply with his left foot and giving Taylor all the time in the world to sweep up the ball.
Italy were in charge of the rhythm of the game without really breaking sweat, but the Irish looked capable of soaking up their advances and occasionally causing problems at the other end. In the 67th minute Emiliano Viviano had to get down smartly but was able to comfortably gather a deflected low strike by Brunt. Pirlo could have put Italy in front in the 69th minute but fired over from the edge of the area after Cassano’s calm lay-off. Pepe had an even better chance shortly afterwards when he was found by a brilliant searching cross from the Sampdoria playmaker, but he seemed caught in two minds as he missed the target. Ireland’s Warren Feeney headed over a minute later with a clever effort on Viviano’s goal.
De Rossi’s influence in midfield grew as the game went on and he linked up with Domenico Criscito to send Mauri down the left wing, and the Lazio man’s cross was headed on target by Cassano only for Taylor to claw his attempt wide. With 15 minutes left Italy began to really put Ireland on the ropes, Cassano and the Italian full backs in particular causing some problems for the Northern Ireland defence around the edge of the box. But it was two substitutes who contrived to miss two quick-fire opportunities – Giampaolo Pazzini’s header should have hit the target with five minutes to go but instead found Giuseppe Rossi, who should have broken the deadlock himself.
With one minute left on the clock a fantastic attack by Northern Ireland almost gave the hosts a smash-and-grab lead. Steven Davis of Rangers played a neat one-two with Celtic’s Niall McGinn and then shot low only for Viviano to come to Italy’s rescue by saving Davis’ effort and seeing Italy to a point gained that will feel like two lost.