A cursory glance at the score-line may indicate Italy remain on a post-World Cup slide. Events at Windsor Park told a different story. There was no conquest to add to the scalps of England and Spain for Northern Irelandtonight but this was a stalemate laden with promise for Nigel Worthington's side.
Two awkward assignments in Group C have brought two clean sheets and four points, with a visit to the Faroe Islands next. An encouraging start will develop into a commanding one should expectations be met on Tuesday and it was indicative of the home side's growing self-belief that frustration confronted Worthington when he walked into the dressing room afterwards.
"The players were disappointed after the game because of the chances missed and because they know we didn't play as well as we can do," said the Northern Ireland manager. "That is pleasing. This is still a great point against the ex-World champions. I would love to have won tonight but a clean sheet against Italy at home, with a solid, disciplined performance shows we are moving forward."
The night would have entered the annals had Steven Davis capped a fine performance with a 90th-minute goal on the break, only to shoot straight at Emiliano Viviano, or had Warren Feeney's glancing header sailed a few inches lower into the top corner. Italy would rightly have acclaimed a travesty in the circumstances, having squandered better openings of their own, but a further reflection of the home side's position came in Cesare Prandelli's conviction that this was a point gained.
Italy left South Africa shamed by failure to win a single game as defending champions, the reputation of the World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi, Fabio Cannavaro and others stained by the nation's plunge into darkness, but style and expectation has not disappeared from their DNA over the course of one miserable summer. "We should have taken our chances but a draw here is not a bad result," said Prandelli, Lippi's successor.
Any team with Andrea Pirlo as its conductor possesses an imperious air and the Italy captain was the game's dominant figure from the off. His quick, intelligent distribution proved a constant test of Northern Ireland's defensive discipline, and it was to their credit that they largely held firm. Once Chris Baird and Steven Davis in particular recognised the need to deny Pirlo any time in central midfield the home side began to display menace of their own.
A balanced, cautious contest stirred around the half-hour mark. David Healy, who is now without a goal in 14 internationals, showed the rustiness that comes from being marginalised at Sunderland when, from Chris Brunt's inviting delivery from the right, he headed wide at the back post from close range. The miss almost assumed defining proportions seconds later when, from a long ball out of the Italy defence, Northern Ireland's backline was caught square and Marco Borriello raced clear on goal. Maik Taylor stood his ground to thwart the Roma striker with a fine save and deserved the reprieve when Antonio Cassano curled the rebound wide.
Italy improved in the second half and should have stopped expectations rising among a raucous home crowd by taking command. Stefano Mauri sent a difficult volley over Taylor's crossbar and then played Borriello into enough space for an international striker to flourish. Borriello once again shot tamely at Taylor and was soon substituted.
Pirlo, Simone Pepe, Cassano, Giorgio Chiellini and the substitute Giampaolo Pazzini all missed inviting openings late on but the home side, disciplined in shape and attitude throughout, merited the point. They have given themselves a platform to progress.
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