Maik Taylor was the hero in Belfast as he kept a clean sheet to earn Northern Ireland a draw which seriously dents Spain's hopes of finishing top of Group 6 and qualifying directly for UEFA EURO 2004™.
Taylor on song
Taylor pulled off a string of superb saves to deny Spain, who have now been replaced at the top of the group by Greece, who followed up Saturday’s stunning win in Zaragoza with a 1-0 victory over Ukraine on Wednesday.
Northern Ireland have not scored in 972 minutes, but they were still able to leave the Windsor Park pitch with heads held high thanks to the Fulham FC goalkeeper who was called into action as early as the third minute to collect a strike from Raùl González.
Doherty comes close
At the other end, Iker Casillas had to be alert to tip over a lob from Tommy Doherty on nine minutes before blocking a George McCartney header five minutes later.
Spain were soon back in command, however, and Taylor matched the Real Madrid FC keeper with quality saves of his own from Raùl and Joseba Etxeberría, before he reacted instinctively to turn away Raùl’s close-range header.
Spain started brightly after the break and Rubén Baraja burst clear only to shoot wide. Then, on 59 minutes, Taylor was forced off his line to save from the on-rushing Sergio.
Casillas to the rescue
Northern Ireland had weathered the storm and five minutes later came close to breaking the deadlock. Casillas saved well from David Healy and the ball broke for David Smith only for his shot to be blocked by a desperate Spanish rearguard.
As the clock wound down, Spanish pressure intensified. On 75 minutes, Doherty cleared off the line after Taylor had kept out substitute Fernando Morientes’s powerful drive then the goalkeeper brilliantly saved again from Raùl.
Playing for pride
Nothern Ireland held on for the draw and just their second point of their campaign. Qualification may be beyond Sammy McIlroy's team but they will take heart from this match, which is more than can be said of Spain who now trail new leaders Greece by a point in the race for a place in Portugal.
McIlroy's side will search for that elusive goal and win on 6 September in Ukraine. That team, third in the group, visit Spain four days later.