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All square as Malta hold Northern Ireland

MALTA-0, NORTHERN IRELAND-0

Malta turned in a creditable performance this evening as they held Northern Ireland to a goalless draw in a friendly at the National Stadium.

In a game of few scoring chances, Malta not only defended well to keep a clean sheet but also produced a string of good moves, particularly in the first half.

National coach Pietro Ghedin had good reason to be pleased with his team's effort, moreso considering that this warm-up was in preparation for next month's World Cup qualifiers away to Bulgaria and at home to Italy.

Ghedin made four changes from the 1-0 win over Liechtenstein. Paul Fenech and Alex Muscat replaced injured duo Roderick Briffa and Jonathan Caruana, goalkeeper Andrew Hogg started ahead of Justin Haber and the returning Michael Mifsud took the place of Terence Vella.

Northern Ireland's team featured several players who are on the books of English Premier League clubs, including Manchester United centre-half Jonny Evans, Southampton's Steven Davis and Aaron Hughes, of Fulham.

The first notable chance fell to Malta after four minutes. Andrew Cohen delivered a good cross from the left but Edward Herrera's scrambled effort from inside the six-yard box was easily saved by Alan Mannus.

N Ireland created a half-chance on 16 minutes when captain Steven Davis played a through-ball to Will Grigg whose initial flick was parried away by Hogg with the ball coming back off the Irish striker.

On 18 minutes, Northern Ireland thought they had scored when Daniel Lafferty headed home from Chris Brunt's corner but Bulgarian referee Nikolay Yordanov had stopped play for a foul by the Irish left-back.

Malta were holding their own in the opening stages. They also had a great opportunity to nose ahead when, following a well-worked set-piece, two shots by Mifsud were blocked by the Irish defenders but the loose ball dropped to Andre Schembri whose rising shot from the edge of the penalty area sailed past the upright.

Another fine Malta move threatened to unhinge the Northern Ireland defence when Agius guided an accurate pass to Herrera whose first-time flick released Sciberras but the latter mishit his pass to Mifsud.

Moments later, Failla's long-range free-kick flew over the crossbar.Three minutes into the second half, Hogg did well to push the ball away from McGinn after the latter had latched on to a through-ball by Davis.

McGinn missed a good chance when he miscued his shot after receiving from Hughes.

At the other end, Mifsud's diagonal shot was touched away by Alan Mannus.The spirits of the home fans rose when, 21 minutes from time, Schembri's diagonal cross fell to Mifsud inside the penalty area. The Malta captain's initial effort was repelled by Mannus and his second was deflected away for a corner.

After exchanging passes with Fenech, Herrera's cross from the right found no takers.

Malta - A. Hogg, A. Muscat, G. Sciberras, A. Agius (46 R. Camilleri), L. Dimech, C. Failla, P. Fenech, M. Mifsud (90 T. Vella), A. Cohen, A. Schembri (90 S. Bajada), E. Herrera.

Northern Ireland - A. Mannus, D. Lafferty, C. McAuley, J. Evans (C. Cathcart), S. Davis, W. Grigg (85 J. Magennis), C. Brunt, N. McGinn, A. Bruce (72 P. McCourt), S. Ferguson (63 B. McKay), A. Hughes.Referee Nikolay Yordanov (Bulgaria).

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