Northern Ireland denied European champions Italy an automatic place in the World Cup finals with a deserved 0-0 draw in Belfast to end the qualifying campaign.
In fact, after the final whistle, there would have been a sense that it should have been more for Ian Baraclough’s men, who created three great chances to secure victory in the second half.
Switzerland’s 4-0 victory over Bulgaria meant the Italians needed a three-goal victory in Belfast to avoid the playoffs, and in reality they neither seemed to earn it nor deserved it against a stubborn, proudly fighting Northern Ireland.
The result also means that Northern Ireland ends the qualifying campaign without conceding a single goal into Windsor Park, which also excludes Bulgaria, Switzerland and Lithuania.
As expected, possession was dominated by the visitors as they chased the victory, which they always knew they probably needed to reach the final.
But Northern Ireland will rejoice at how much they limited the European champions in terms of real goal chances.
As the Italians seemed to benefit from curling passes and holes in the defense, NI stood firm. There was an early chance for the impressive Barella to curl a wide pass to right-back Di Lorenzo, but his shot was well tilted past by Bailey Peacock Farrell.
Helping Di Lorenzo expose any loss of Jamal Lewis seemed Italy’s best tactic, but otherwise they had a hard time producing fruit. Barella shot straight at Peacock-Farrell, just like Insigne did before this summer’s star man Chiesa came on the field and finally got a chance to isolate right-back Stuart Dallas. He drove the Leeds man back, but his shot was stopped by Peacock-Farrell when Insigne threatened to get a telling look.
At the other end, there were small actions in the first half to report for Northern Ireland, with a header from Tom Flanagan high and wide after Gavin White’s raw pace led to a dangerous break and won a free kick.
It was a matter of so far, so good for Northern Ireland, and it would only get better after the break as they poured frustration over their guests.
Again, Italy spent great periods in camp inside the opposition, but again without anything to show for it.
Insigne and Chiesa both threw shots wide in almost the best their side had to offer.
At the other end, there were three huge opportunities for Northern Ireland to add Italy to people like England and Spain in huge Belfast scalps in this century.
Two of them were set up by Jamal Lewis, who looked more impressive in the attacking third than he did in the defensive. First, he silenced Gavin White’s post perfectly into the field to George Saville, who smashed an effort too close to Gianluigi Donnarumma, allowing the goalkeeper to stop.
Then later in the half, Lewis put a tantalizing ball over the edge of the box. It looked like Stuart Dallas was going to take some time off to score, but when he did, his effort was deflected off the post.
The best was back to last when Conor Washington hit the overwhelming Donnarumma to the ball in the last minute, rounded the goalkeeper and a covering defender, but could not get enough purchases on the shot to hit the man on the line.
It left a bit of a “what could have been” feeling, but not half as much as this result left a sense of pride at the end of a hectic World Cup qualifying campaign.
Manager Ian Baraclough will sign a new deal to extend his reign, and heading into next year’s Nations League campaign, this will give GAWA renewed faith that brighter days may be just around the corner again.
For Italy, the playoffs await.
You’re welcome, Switzerland.
Here is the game as it happened: