Northern Ireland picked up their first point of their EURO 2004™ Group 6 qualifying campaign in a 0-0 draw with Ukraine in Belfast.
Northern Ireland manager Sammy McIlroy witnessed his side's failure to score for a fifth consecutive game and, worryingly, his new front line of David Healy and Paul McVeigh never looked like breaking down a strong Ukraine defence marshalled by Arsenal FC defender Oleg Luzhny. In fact, the home side were unable to muster one meaningful effort on Vitaliy Reva's goal in the second half and it was Ukraine who almost grabbed a late winner.
It had been a different story in the first period as Northern Ireland pressed forward and Keith Gillespie in particular caused left-back Olexandr Radchenko numerous problems down the right flank. The Blackburn Rovers FC winger's first foray produced a corner from which captain Steve Lomas just failed to connect with a header. Radchenko was then forced into a bodycheck on Gillespie and the resulting free-kick left Reva gratefully clutching the ball after his initial punch went skywards.
Ukraine slowly began to exert influence through the midfield area and the dangerous Maxym Kalynychenko saw a volley just clear the crossbar. Striker Andriy Vorobey then almost escaped the attentions of Aaron Hughes but the defender managed to deflect the goal-bound shot.
Hughes takes charge
A two-footed challenge by Andriy Husin on Michael Hughes produced the game's first yellow card but at least lifted the tempo, with Damien Johnson following Gillespie's lead with a number of mazy runs. Midfield player Philip Mulryne hit a stinging right-foot shot on 14 minutes, which Reva did well to hold on to.
An aggrieved Hughes, still smarting from Husin's earlier indiscretion, was booked for a late tackle, but was soon showing a better side to his game as he floated in a free-kick that almost reached defender George McCartney. Hughes then sprinted on to a loose ball but miscued his left-foot drive from the edge of the area.
Rebrov comes close
The second half was enlivened by the introduction of Serhiy Rebrov who had the Irish defence funnelling back at regular intervals and it was the Tottenham Hotspur FC striker who came closest to finding the breakthrough as he flashed a header just over goalkeeper Maik Taylor's crossbar. The draw was Ukraine's second in three games and leaves them with five points.