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8 of 009

Scotland 0-0 Northern Ireland

Aug 21 2008 By Keith Jackson at Hampden

IT'S 10 years since Scotland last won a friendly match at Hampden. Coincidentally, it's been 10 years since they last played in a World Cup Finals.

Some things, it seems, might never ever change.

George Burley's boys huffed and puffed their way around the National Stadium last night and, at times, even managed to play some reasonable stuff against an Irish side that has big ambitions of its own.

But, thanks to some sloppy finishing and alack of cutting edge or even belief in the last third of the pitch, Scotland could not put the opposition away and now stumble on towards Macedonia in two weeks from now when the next crack at qualification begins.

This was Burley's final warm-up game before the serious stuff starts and although he will have been pleased by a great deal of his players, he may also awake this morning with a fear gnawing away at his insides. He's been in charge of this group three times now and is still waiting for his first win.

And, if last night's limp forward play is anything to go by, he could spend another 10 years waiting for another Scotland goal.

That really ought to frighten the life out of Burley as - with James McFadden and Kenny Miller leading his line - this was as strong a strike-force is he's likely to get.

But Miller looks short on confidence and not even McFadden could produce the magic to break down an Irish defence held together quite superbly by Manchester United defender Johnny Evans.

In the end it was Northern Ireland who could have snatched victory in the second half had Rangers keeper Allan McGregor not made a superb save to deny Fulham striker David Healy from the penalty spot.

Burley has little more than a fortnight to sharpen his attack before Group 9 kicks off.

Time is not his ally. But at least he can at least look back on last night's performance and feel reasonably satisfied the rest of his team is moving in the right direction.

Burley's only surprise selection was Kevin Thomson who won a central midfield berth and kept Barry Robson among the subs.

It was Thomson's duty to dovetail with Darren Fletcher and allow wide men Scott Brown and James Morrison to attack the Irish down the flanks. Early signs were encouraging as together Fletcher and Thomson grabbed control of the central area and began to pass and probe.

Burley's side appeared nicely balanced. If possession was conceded, it was compact and his players energetic enough to press and harass until they had won the ball back.

Thomson grew in confidence and let fly from distance twice in quick succession, his first shot sailing over and his second fizzing wide of Maik Taylor's left-hand post.

In truth, neither effort was particularly close to troubling the Birmingham keeper but Thomson and Scotland, for that matter, had settled smoothly into a rhythm. For long spells they were zipping passes around on a wet and slick Hampden surface. In fact, they seeemed to be enjoying themselves out there and all they needed was a goal to really get the party started.

McFadden tried his best to unlock the visitors in 25 minutes when he rolled his marker with a superb piece of trickery before lashing the ball across the six-yard box but it was scrambled clear before Miller could pounce.

Seconds later Morrison released Miller with a wonderful pass that ought to have sent the striker into a one on one with Taylor.

But Miller seemed a little unsure of himself and his hesitation allowed Evans to show an impressive turn of pace to get back and rob him of his chance on the edge of the box.

In 28 minutes, a terrific Evans header denied McFadden the chance to open the scoring as he hurled himself at a cross from Gary Naysmith, who had combined superbly with both Thomson and Morrison on the Scotland left.

And when the resulting corner was only half-cleared to the edge of the Irish box, Evans charged out and threw himself at yet another powerful Thomson drive to snuff out the danger.

Less than 60 seconds later McFadden had wriggled into the penalty box but could only stab at his shot with a big toe and Taylor got down smartly to his left to make the save.

Right then, after such a flurry of activity, it seemed Scotland's breakthrough was surely imminent but the goal simply would not come and, in fact, Burley's players were beginning to run out of ideas by the time the whistle sounded for the interval.

Burley made three changes at the break with Robson going on for Thomson, Falkirk's Darren Barr earning his first cap as a replacement for captain Stephen McManus and Allan McGregor taking over in goal rom Craig Gordon.

Hibs' striker Dean Shiels was thrown into the Irish attack as a half-time replacement for Burnley's Martin Paterson.

The patter of play remained relatively untouched, though.

Scotland continued to pop the ball around with greater poise and purpose even if Fletcher was being careless at times.

United team-mate Evans, meanwhile, continued to gobble up everything that came his way. But Northern Ireland's task became even harder in 56 minutes when full-back Ryan McGivern picked up his second yellow card for sending Brown sprawling when it seemed the Celtic man was set to surge into the penalty box.

McGivern, who had been booked in the first half for chopping into Brown's ankles, had to go and and Danish referee Nicolai Vollquartz did not hesitate.

From the free-kick McFadden tested Taylor with a cute, curling effort but the keeper clutched it comfortably.

McFadden tried again soon after with another delicate effort but once more Taylor was alive and alert enough to make the save.

Just when it appeared that Scotland were turning the screw, another Irish sub, Dundee United striker Warren Feeney, ghosted in behind Davie Weir and was brought crashing down by a hopelessly exposed McGregor.

Northern Ireland's deadly sharp-shooter, David Healy, stepped up to take the penalty kick to the delight of the away fans who took the outcome for granted.

But McGregor is rapidly becoming a bit of an expert in such matters and the Rangers keeper pulled off a stunning save low at his right-hand post to leave Healy holding his head in his hands.

Burley made more changes when he replaced Morrison with Kris Commons and Fletcher with Michael Stewart. Christophe Berra also went on for old man Weir for the last 20 minutes.

Only the heroics of Taylor prevented McFadden from snatching a winner.

Robson's corner kick was nodded on by Barr and the Birmingham forward looked certain to leave the net bulging with a ferocious shot but was denied by an equally impressive block by the keeper.

A long-range Graham Alexander shot then flashed across the face of goal and was touched just wide of the upright by Taylor as Scotland pressed for a late winner but both nations had to settle for level terms as the game ended goalless.

Taken from the Daily Record

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