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Wales 1 Northern Ireland 1: Church the saviour for hosts in Cardiff

Substitute Simon Church held his nerve to convert an 89th-minute penalty as Wales rallied to secure a 1-1 draw against fellow Euro 2016 qualifiers Northern Ireland at a sodden Cardiff City Stadium.

Craig Cathcart looked set to be the unlikely hero for the visitors on Thursday, with the defender’s second goal in three international appearances breaking the deadlock after 60 minutes in the Welsh capital.

Without the services of Gareth Bale, who had stayed in Madrid following discussions between club and country, Wales struggled to break down a dogged visiting defence in a battle between two nations preparing for their debuts at the European Championship.

However, Church scored from the spot to deny Northern Ireland their first win over Wales in eight meetings, the forward slotting home after he had been fouled inside the area by Gareth McAuley.

Both teams continue their build-up to Euro 2016 on Monday, with Wales travelling to play Ukraine and Northern Ireland hosting Slovenia.

The absence of Bale, as well as key midfielder Aaron Ramsey, saw Chris Coleman’s side struggle to find a way past a Northern Ireland team that conceded just eight goals in qualifying from Group F.

Joe Ledley had an early opportunity to test visiting goalkeeper Michael McGovern, but the Crystal Palace midfielder opted to try and square the ball to team-mate Tom Lawrence, rather than shooting.

McGovern was finally forced to make a save in the 20th minute, turning aside a low free-kick from David Cotterill – whose middle names include George Best – that gathered pace off the wet surface.

George Williams also had a curling shot blocked by Cathcart, with Sam Vokes failing to get a header on target from the resulting corner.

Northern Ireland – who handed a debut to Conor Washington – barely threatened before the break. Defender Paddy McNair’s ambitious long-range drive – one which threatened the spectators instead of the net – was the visitors’ only shot at goal in the first 45 minutes.

Wales manager Coleman switched goalkeepers at half time, taking off Wayne Hennessey to hand an international debut to Danny Ward.

The new boy had the chance to make an early save from Kyle Lafferty, although the forward’s effort was aimed straight at the Liverpool player.

But Ward had to pick the ball out of his net on the hour mark. A short corner allowed McNair to float over a cross and, with Wales dithering inside their own area, Cathcart took the chance to swivel on a loose ball and fire Northern Ireland into an unlikely lead.

The solitary goal looked set to be enough for Michael O’Neill’s team, only for the otherwise excellent McAuley to make an ill-judged challenge late on. Church seized the chance to draw Wales level, meaning honours finished even.

Thu 24 Mar, 2016
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