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Malta 0-0 Northern Ireland: Friendly stalemate for Michael O’Neill’s men

Northern Ireland ground out an uninspiring 0-0 international friendly draw away to Malta at the Ta’qali National Stadium.

Genuine quality was at a premium in game characterised by sloppiness on the ball and pedestrian tempo, leaving Irish boss Michael O’Neill still searching for his first win after eight games at the helm.

With stalwarts Kyle Lafferty and Chris Baird both suspended and a host of names – including Roy Carroll – injured and withdrawn from the squad, O’Neill was afforded the opportunity to try several untested players.

Despite having two friendly caps for the Republic of Ireland to his name, Hull City’s Alex Bruce made his debut, alongside St Johnstone goalkeeper Alan Mannus and Walsall striker Will Grigg. Inverness striker Billy McKay – the Scottish Premier League top scorer this term – had to make do with a spot on the bench, with O’Neill opting to play a solitary front-man.

Northern Ireland’s central defensive duo were in the thick of the action from the off, with Gareth McAuley’s hashed headed clearance allowing Edward Herrara to shoot tamely at Mannus from just six yards out, before Jonny Evans miscued in front of goal from Steven Davis’ corner.

Chris Brunt had a goal disallowed for the visitors after the referee bewilderingly adjudged Malta goalkeeper Andrew Hogg to have been impeded, while at the other end ex-Coventry striker Michael Mifsud almost benefitted from a well crafted set-piece routine.

Grigg went close with a flicked header though Ireland’s prolonged inability to retain possession almost cost them before the interval, yet Mifsud could not capitalise on Bruce’s overly-casual attempt to control the ball.

The game continued after the break in a similarly lethargic manner, best encapsulated by McGinn’s mis-kick in front of the Malta goal.

The introduction of McKay and Paddy McCourt alongside Grigg up front gave Northern Ireland scant impetus, with Mifsud saved effort after bringing the ball down smartly on his chest the only incident of note in the second half.

The uninspiring and dire nature of the performance will offer little encouragement for O’Neill, who faces tough games against 2014 World Cup Qualification Group F table-toppers Russia and Israel at Windsor Park late next month.

Wed 6 February, 2013
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