Northern Ireland produced a performance of superb defensive discipline to hold European champions Italy to a 0-0 draw and send them into the World Cup play-offs.
Ian Baraclough’s side saved their best performance of his reign for the last game of their World Cup qualifying campaign, and should have won late on with Conor Washington denied a last-minute goal by Leonardo Bonucci’s goal-line clearance.
The Green and White Army had to be strong defensively and their five-man defence restricted an uninspired Italy to a number of half-chances in Belfast, with Federico Chiesa twice going close and Lorenzo Insigne’s curling effort easily saved.
The full-time whistle was greeted with huge cheers from the capacity home crowd at the end of a profitable international break for Northern Ireland, whose four points from their final two games of qualifying have restored the belief around Baraclough’s side, earning them a third-placed finish in Group C and allowing Switzerland to leapfrog Italy and qualify automatically for Qatar 2022.
“If they had won the game, we wouldn’t have been saying that was daylight robbery, they covered the ground well and broke pretty well in the second half,” former Northern Ireland international Neil Lennon told Sky Sports after one of the most impressive home performances at Windsor Park in some while.
Northern Ireland: Peacock-Farrell (7), Cathcart (8), Flanagan (7), Jonny Evans (8), Lewis (7), Davis (8), Dallas (7), McCann (7), Saville (7), Whyte (8), Magennis (6).
Subs: Washington (7), Corry Evans (6).
Italy: Sanchez (7), Donnarumma (6), Di Lorenzo (6), Bonucci (7), Acerbi (5), Emerson (6), Tonali (5), Jorginho (5), Barella (5), Berardi (6), Insigne (6), Chiesa (5).
Subs: Cristante (5), Scamacca (5), Locatelli (5), Bernardeschi (5).
Man of the match: Jonny Evans.
Another famous night at Windsor Park denies Italy
A 1-0 win over Lithuania on Friday had gone some way to building back enthusiasm around a Northern Ireland side who had briefly looked in danger of finishing bottom of their qualifying group, but few would have expected anything other than an away win against a side crowned European champions barely four months before visiting Windsor Park.
In the build-up to the game, the Italian press had lamented a Northern Ireland victory over Italy in the final qualifying match for the 1958 World Cup which had denied the Azzurri a spot in the finals as a warning to Roberto Mancini’s side, and 63 years on it would surprisingly poignant.
Mancini’s toothless visitors saw plenty of the ball from the first whistle but always lacked ideas in how to break down a well-drilled Northern Ireland side, who occasionally looked threatening on the break themselves and saw Tom Flanagan power a header over the bar in a rare first-half chance.
Italy’s opportunities were little better themselves, with Bailey Peacock-Farrell making light work of tame Chiesa and Insigne efforts and the visitors surprisingly lethargic given only victory would ensure their path to Qatar.
They might have had more work to do had George Saville’s first-time effort from Jamal Lewis’ square beaten Donnarumma moments after half-time, before Mancini ditched his plan to operate with Insigne as a false nine and brought on Gianluca Scamacca as his search for a goal became more pressing.
Northern Ireland continued to frustrate in front of an increasingly buoyant home crowd, who were only too pleased when Chiesa fired wide after showing some quick feet in the box to get away from Jonny Evans.
With news filtering through of a Switzerland lead against Bulgaria – meaning Italy would need victory to qualify – the Azzurri abandoned their defensive shape to add Federico Bernardeschi to their attacking armoury, but were nearly caught out as they searched for victory.
Donnarumma raced out of his area to meet a long ball forward and was outmuscled by Washington, who took a moment to realise he was clean through on goal. His indecision would cost him, as after working half a yard of space his tame effort was cleared off the line by Bonucci, who had been given time to get back into position.
It mattered little for the home support come the full-time whistle, with Northern Ireland’s performance one of the stories of the night across Europe to deny Italy, secure third place in Group C for themselves and add another superb performance to the list at Windsor Park.
Elsewhere in Group C…
Switzerland booked their World Cup spot in style by thrashing Bulgaria 4-0 in Luzerne.
After hitting the woodwork on the stroke of half-time, Noah Okafor headed in his first international goal three minutes after the interval.
Ex-Liverpool forward Xherdan Shaqiri also hit the post before Ruben Vargas doubled Switzerland’s lead.
The hosts then had two goals ruled out for offside, before substitute Cedric Itten and Remo Freuler capped a brilliant night for the home side.
What the managers said…
Northern Ireland boss Ian Baraclough told Sky Sports: “You know you’re going to have to work for long periods, and sustain some pressure. We did that in abundance, you’re going to get one or two chances, especially as it goes on and they start to take chances themselves, and Conor Washington’s had the best of the lot.
“It was the work-rate, the desire to go and get a result for a dead rubber in effect, although every game means something for us. It’s something to be thought of with pride, and we played with our heads as well. We asked the players not to play with too much emotion, and they did that to a man.
“I feel for Conor, he’s desperate to score goals and gets in some really good positions. He’d done everything right, Bonucci’s a class defender to get in the position on the line. He’ll be tossing and turning in bed tonight thinking about that one.”
Italy manager Roberto Mancini told Sky Sports: “I’m disappointed because we didn’t get a goal in the first half. We had a lot of possession, but Northern Ireland are difficult – they had all their players behind the ball, they were strong and tall. If you don’t score early, it’s difficult.
“I think we played a good game, but this group should have finished last Friday – we had a penalty to win the game against Switzerland, it should have been finished.
“We knew Switzerland had a lot of chances to win against Bulgaria, we did not expect 4-0 but it didn’t change the situation, as we didn’t score. At the moment we have this problem, we are playing good football but not scoring enough.
“We are one of the best teams in Europe, we need to recover very well for the play-offs, and I’m sure we’ll win the next two games.”