BY MICHAEL DEVLIN
There was only eleven minutes left on the clock when Helder Postiga stabbed in the equaliser that denied Northern Ireland a memorable win in their World Cup Group F qualifier at the Estadio do Dragao.
The night was supposed to be a ceremonious affair to celebrate Cristiano Ronaldo’s 100th cap for Portugal, with the Real Madrid winger presented before the crowd by Luis Figo.
In the early stages, Portugal dominated possession and peppered Roy Carroll’s goal with target bound efforts, therefore assuming immediate ascendancy.
However, Michael O’Neill’s charges soon fought back, with the plucky ‘Norn Iron’ brigade stunning the Porto crowd into silence. In a fantastic example of counter attacking play, the outstanding Jonny Evans stepped up to pinch the ball from Ronaldo’s dancing toes, effectively delivering the ball to Kyle Lafferty.
The striker did well to control the ball, and with the Portugal defenders back tracking, he expertly weighted a pass for the onrushing Niall McGinn on the opposite wing. The Aberdeen winger collected the ball and calmly lifted his shot over Rui Patricio, to send the 1,200 away supporters into raptures.
Northern Ireland continued to hold out Ronaldo and Co bravely, with the heroic Evans in particular, giving arguably his finest performance in a green shirt. Roy Carroll ma
de save after save, but inevitably, Postiga spared Portugal’s blushes in the 79th minute. As the final whistle went, the travelling NI support applauded their heroes, as a rather glum Ronaldo trudged off the field, his big night dampened.
A point will be celebrated by the Northern Ireland side that were held at home by Luxembourg last time out, and had a poor record of just one win in their last 18 matches and two victories in their last 29 coming into the tie. However, their bravery in the face of a world class attacking side, a team ranking 114 places above them, so nearly yielded a victory.
The game will evoke memories of famous historic encounters with Spain and England, and like Gerry Armstrong’s and David Healy’s strikes, McGinn’s maiden international goal will be replayed for years to come.
“This is a dream come true and I'm delighted to have scored my first international goal,” he said. “I just saw the keeper coming and dinked it over him. The boys were great, especially in the first half, and we can hold our heads high after this result.”
Martin O’Neill commented: “I think we saw a huge amount of character in this team”.“I was proud to stand there tonight and be their manager. That's because of what they gave to the cause and to each other”, he said.
Although they may feel hard done by with only a point to show for their efforts, their performance against Portugal will give Northern Ireland the self-belief that they require for the remainder of their qualifying campaign.
A contest against Azerbaijan in Belfast on the 14th of November will see them compete with supreme confidence.