Northern Ireland young boys battle to deserved draw against Switzerland
World Cup European qualifying Group C: Northern Ireland 0-0 Switzerland
GOALLESS draws are rarely memorable but this was a result to savour for a young Northern Ireland side, with seven starters aged 24 or younger.
Another galling home defeat to the Swiss from a controversial penalty was avoided thanks to the second spot-kick save in a week by Bailey Peacock-Farrell, denying Haris Seferovic in the 33rd minute - but otherwise he was barely troubled.
An even worse spot-kick decision against the Swiss in Belfast had cost Northern Ireland the chance of a World Cup place four years ago, leading to the only goal of a two-legged play-off.
This result keeps the hopes of reaching Qatar 2022 alive, but the performance bodes even better for the longer-term. The appearance off the bench of Liverpool's highly-rated teenager Conor Bradley capped off a fine night.
Roared on by almost a full house, the men/ boys in green produced a terrific performance for the 15,660 present. Those who didn't take up the other 340 seats available will regret missing out, despite the understandable grievance about higher ticket prices.
The IFA got a strongly-worded chant for that, but the atmosphere was otherwise upbeat. Even before kick-off 'Sweet Caroline' was loudly reclaimed after English fans' appropriation of it at the Euros. The advice to the visitors on where to place their Toblerone won't become a regular, but will surely be reprised for the away game.
In general the supporters quite rightly offered praise to a team missing arguably five starters, certainly five of the most experienced players. Absent again were Jonny and Corry Evans, Stuart Dallas, and Josh Magennis, while the harsh yellow card Paddy McNair received in Lithuania ruled him out.
Boss Ian Baraclough still stuck with his three centre backs system, calling up Ciaron Brown of Cardiff City, who acquitted himself admirably. That meant, at least in terms of parent clubs, that only attacker Conor Washington was from outside the top two tiers of English or Scottish football.
Yet to put the display into perspective, the first five names on the Swiss teamsheet, at least in numerical order, were all from Bundesliga clubs, three of them from Borussia Moenchengladbach, with others from Serie A - Atalanta and Torino - plus centre-forward Seferovic of Benfica.
The Swiss had deployed a Christmas tree formation - 4-3-2-1 - in their goalless home draw against European champions Italy at the weekend, but were bolder here, or at least tried to be.
With Silvan Widmer very advanced on the right flank, they too mostly had three at the back, but in a 3-4-3 which sometimes morphed into a 3-3-4. That meant the home wing-backs, Michael Smith and particularly Jamal Lewis, were pinned back.
Even so, the hosts began brightly and had the first chance, a very good one. Craig Cathcart played a fine ball over the top and Shayne Lavery's first touch superbly took him away from central defender Nico Elvedi. The Blackpool striker appeared to do everything right, including drifting onto that favoured side and keeping in front of his man, but under pressure his shot then sliced slightly wide.
Lavery's willing running was posing problems for the Swiss rearguard and he rolled an inviting ball across the box only for Jordan Thompson to meet it when he should have left it to the advancing Lewis.
The match continued to be entertaining but without any more clear opportunities until the Swiss were gifted one by the referee from Austria. Yes, Austria.
There appeared little danger when a ball was clipped into the box but Herr Lechner pointed to the spot after Ruben Vargas went down following a collision with Smith. It was clumsy from the Hearts man but appeared a harsh decision.
Peacock-Farrell made the matter moot with his second penalty save in two qualifiers, this time diving to his right to keep out a weak effort from Seferovic.
That earned him his bit of luck in the 40th minute when he failed to gather a ball hooked across by Manuel Akanji, whose defensive partner Elvedi could only poke his shot past the post.
Vargas was growing into the game, cutting in from the left on his right foot, but was switched to the right wing at the start of the second half. After a foul by Lewis he swung over a delicious low free kick but even at full stretch Akanji could only turn it well wide.
Just before the hour the Swiss sent on two more Bundesliga players, Renato Steffen of Wolfsburg and Eintracht Frankfurt's Steven Zuber, for Fabian Frei and Christian Fassnacht, in an effort to enliven their midfield.
Midway through the second half Baraclough responded with a competitive debut for 18-yeaer-old Tyrone lad Bradley, and also sent Dion Charles on up front in place of Conor Washington.
Chances remained scarce, though, despite the raucous atmosphere. The fans on the Kop loudly appealed for a handball penalty, but the players didn't. From the resultant corner Daniel Ballard rose to head downwards, but only into a ruck of red-shirted players.
Neither side could force a goal, neither deserved to win or lose, but Northern Ireland merit much praise for their heroic efforts.
Northern Ireland: Peacock-Farrell; Smith (Bradley, 67), Ballard, Cathcart, Brown, Lewis; McCann, Davis (capt.), Thompson (Saville, 73); Washington (Charles, 68), Lavery (Jones, 86).
Switzerland: Sommer; Elvedi, Akanji, Rodriguez; Widmer (Lotomba, 86), Freuler, Frei (Steffen, 59), Zakaria (Aebischer, 86); Fassnacht (Zuber, 59), Seferovic (Zeqiri, 77), Vargas.
Referee: Harald Lechner (Austria).