Belfast: Northern Ireland manager Nigel Worthington insisted his side should have claimed a famous scalp after they held four-time world champions Italy to a 0-0 draw in a Euro 2012 qualifier in Belfast.
Nigel Worthington’s side were able to subdue the Italians thanks to a fiercely competitive performance, but they could have clinched a shock win if David Healy had converted a golden opportunity in the first half on Friday.
It is 24 years since Northern Ireland last made a major finals, yet they have secured some memorable victories in recent years, with England and Spain both leaving Belfast empty-handed, and this will go down as another heroic home display.
Northern Ireland have now taken four points from their first two Group C matches, but Worthington felt the hosts could have played even better.
“It was a very hard game. We knew Italy would have their share of possession, but we have got a terrific point out of the game without playing as well as we can,” Worthington said.
“The players are all disappointed in the dressing room and that is good to see.
“I must say the shape of the team on the night, and their courage, was absolutely fantastic. They stuck to their task and were solid and resilient.”
Italy coach Cesare Prandelli admitted his side could have few complaints about the result because their finishing had let them down: “Northern Ireland are always difficult opponents at home,” he said.
“We had a lot of chances but suffered a lot of bad luck with our finishing. But I am pleased with the work the team put in.
“Our mental approach was strong and Northern Ireland got a big advantage from the crowd. It was a fair result, I feel.”
After a disastrous World Cup campaign ended with a first round exit in South Africa, Prandelli has been overhauling an aging squad and his young side arrived in Belfast on top of the group after two successive victories.
They controlled the tempo in the early stages of the first half and threatened twice as Domenico Criscito broke clear only to drag his shot wide of the far post before Simone Pepe got into a good position but failed to test Northern Ireland goalkeeper Maik Taylor.
Fired up by a passionate capacity crowd, Northern Ireland gradually began to rattle Italy with their constant pressing and the hosts should have taken the lead in the 31st minute.
When Chris Brunt curled a perfect cross towards Healy at the far post, Northern Ireland’s record scorer looked certain to end his run of two years without a goal, but he could only direct his header tamely wide from close-range.
Italy responded to that narrow escape by launching an incisive counter-attack which left Marco Borriello one on one with Taylor, but the striker’s effort was too close to the keeper and Antonio Cassano curled the rebound wide of a post.
Worthington’s side felt aggrieved just before half-time when French referee Tony Chapron refused to award a penalty after Daniele De Rossi appeared to handle the ball in the area.
Borriello found himself in space in the 62nd minute but failed to trouble Taylor with a weak finish.
Antonio Cassano went close with a curling effort that was superbly tipped over by Taylor.
Substitute Giampaolo Pazzini could have sealed it for Italy in the 86th minute but headed wide of the post with a glancing effort.
Northern Ireland wasted a chance to put pressure on Prandelli’s men when Steven Davis somehow managed to kick the flag instead of the ball when taking a corner.
Davis nearly went from zero to hero in the final moments but his shot was parried to safety after a neat exchange of passes with Niall McGinn.