Northern Ireland 1 Latvia 0 (Match Report)

October 11, 2006

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

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Denmark 0 Northern Ireland 0 (Match Report)

October 7, 2006

Published: Happy Days issue 7

Denmark 0 Northern Ireland 0
Almost 3,000 of the Green and White Army descended into the Parken Stadium, having spent all day getting their picture taken with the Little Mermaid, enjoying free samples on the Carlsberg tour and looking embarrassed in the Erotic Museum. The fans showed why they deserved their award as ‘Best fans in Europe’ by turning the main square into a Sea of Green and enjoying plenty of banter with the Danes on the way to the stadium. We were well received too, with many Danes staying behind after the final whistle to clap them off. I even bumped into a couple of Norwegians who had travelled down for the game because they heard that “the team who beat Spain have the Best fans!”

On the pitch, Northern Ireland showed once again that they can cut it with the big boys. It was always going to be tough against a team who hadn’t lost at home in over two years. Sanchez’s men never threatened to come away with three points, but a strong defensive rear guard meant that the Dane’s wouldn’t get them either. It was scrappy at times, but despite Denmark’s dominance in possession, they never really had any clear cut chances and found their efforts on goal mostly limited to outside the 18 yard box.

John Dahl Tomasson and Peter Lovenkrands went close with headers early on as Denmark started brightly, but Northern Ireland showed discipline as Denmark patiently prodded our backline. The game sprang into life just before half time when Martin Jorgensen fired a shot that took a deflection past Maik Taylor, but fortunately past the post as well while some of the home crowd prematurely celebrated. Two minutes later and Taylor was called into action, clawing away a Thomas Kahlenberg strike which Jonny Evans had to clear before the predatory Tomasson could get a sniff. Evans, who was winning only his second cap, was giving another performance of assurance and solidity which was completely in inverse proportion to his first team experience.

Northern Ireland, who hadn’t threatened the Danish goal in the first half saw their best opportunity saved by Sorensen on 50 minutes. Liverpool centre back Dan Agger tripped on the ball allowing David Healy a half chance from 15 yards but it was comfortably saved by the Aston Villa goalkeeper. It was hardly just reward for a frontline that worked hard, but saw little of the ball. Young Kyle Lafferty showed glimpses of his quality with some nice touches off the chest throughout. His replacement on 63 minutes was Steve Jones, who showed enthusiasm and energy, but lacked the instinct of a centre forward, never trying to get in front of his man or make runs into space when the ball was crossed into the box. With the fresh legs of Jones and Damien Johnson who was making his first appearance for the national side in almost a year, Northern Ireland did start to look threatening but it was Denmark who finished the game stronger. With the introductions of Claus Jensen and Birmingham star Niklas Bendtner, Denmark surged forward with greater purpose in the last quarter. On 81 minutes Jensen had a seemingly goalbound shot cleared heroically by Aaron Hughes, winning his milestone 50th cap. After a good spell of pressure on 85 minutes, Agger drove a shot that just brushed Maik Taylor’s crossbar. As the fourth official held up the board for 6 minutes of stoppage time, the disbelieving away fans found an extra lung to sing the team over the final whistle.
It might not have been a classy performance, but in this business, points prevail.