Published: Happy Days issue 7
Healy gives Latvians migraine
Northern Ireland 1 Latvia 0
David Healy was once again the hero for Northern Ireland as both crowd and players rose to the occasion of another Wednesday night at Windsor Park. What was more astonishing is that Healy played with a migraine for 90 minutes but it was the Latvian management who left Belfast with a headache. A 35th minute goal was enough to see off a team who looked nothing like the Latvia who played so well against Germany and Czech Republic in Euro 2004. Yet much of this was down to a dominant display from the boys in green based on ball retention and a tight defensive unit
If Latvia were high on confidence from their 4-0 defeat of Iceland four days previously then they certainly didn’t show it with some poor clearances from defence and an attacking approach which wouldn’t have looked out of place on a gravity-free pitch. Northern Ireland started the brighter of the two teams capitalising on some nervous Latvian defending with plenty of early balls into the box with Kyle Lafferty unlucky not to connect with a Johnson cross. With Clingan and Davis dominating the centre of the park and Gillespie providing width and pace the opening exchanges looked hopeful. One obvious weakness on the Irish team was the left side of midfield with Damien Johnson showing indiscipline in drifting into his more natural central midfield position which left young Jonny Evans exposed at times, although Latvian coach Andrejevs failed to notice and exploit this preferring instead his much more aerial tactic which didn’t trouble the pairing of Aaron Hughes and the ever impressing Stephen Craigan.
Northern Ireland struggled to create any clear chances, with a half chance falling to Lafferty on 24 minutes which he dragged wide of the post. Then just as Latvia started to show signs of their counter-attacking promise, a lovely clipped ball from Keith Gillespie found its way onto Healy’s head and a cushioned header over the bewildered Smirnovs sent him through one on one with the onrushing Kolinko and the Northern Ireland marksman slotted it through the former Crystal Palace keeper’s legs. It was just reward for the Northern Ireland striker who had shown patience when the final ball was oft found wanting. Lafferty could have made it 2-0 a minute later when he found himself free at the back post but hammered his half volley wide.
Latvia made one change at the start of the second half with Gorkss coming on for Smirnovs as they started to show much more attacking intent. Johnson was the last man to appear from the tunnel and spent the remainder of the game firmly on the left side of midfield, with Sanchez clearly having outlined his tactics to the Birmingham captain.
The first 20 minutes of the second half saw plenty of goalmouth action with the Latvian frontline scrapping in Maik Taylor’s penalty area and Healy seeing his curled shot scrambled clear by Kolinko. Northern Ireland had the ball in the net on 63 minutes when Davis slotted home from Gillespie’s slide rule pass but the goal was ruled out for offside against Lafferty, even though the Fermanagh lad didn’t appear to be interfering with play. Latvia’s best chance of the game fell to Karlsons on 71 minutes from a disputed freekick but his driven shot deflected off Taylor’s head and was eventually cleared by Evans.
That proved to be the last meaningful action of the game as Sanchez shut up shop to settle for a narrow win over one of the poorest sides at Windsor Park for many years with a performance that was one of the most assured