Sports

Italy too Strong for Northern Ireland

A commanding first-half display by Italy condemned Northern Ireland to a 2-0 defeat in their opening World Cup qualifier in Parma. An early goal from Domenico Berardi set the tone for the slick hosts, with Bailey Peacock-Farrell was then beaten by Ciro Immobile at his near post.

Northern Ireland responded strongly after the break and went close through Gavin Whyte and Paddy McNair. Ian Baraclough’s men play Bulgaria at home in their next qualifier. That is next Wednesday night at Belfast’s Windsor Park, but before that at the same venue on Sunday, Baraclough must guide his squad through a friendly against The USA.

Having replaced Michael O’Neill last year, the former NI Under-21 boss is still without a win during 90 minutes after nine matches in charge of the senior side. This was always going to be a difficult match in which to get that first victory, with Italy, resurgent since Roberto Mancini took over in 2018, now unbeaten in 23 matches.

The four-time World Cup winners have still never lost a home World Cup qualifier, with Thursday’s win adding to the 10 victories they secured in 10 Euro 2020 qualifiers. With Switzerland beating Bulgaria 3-1 earlier in the day’s other Group C match, next Wednesday’s encounter at Windsor now assumes even more importance for Northern Ireland as they bid to reach a World Cup finals for the first time since 1986.

Buhlebezwe Ntiwane.

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