Italy held in Northern Ireland

BELFAST, Oct 8 (Reuters) - Italy could not find a way past a determined Northern Ireland as they were held to a 0-0 draw at a noisy Windsor Park in their Euro 2012 Group C qualifier on Friday.

The Italians dominated possession and ignored the taunts of "San Marino in disguise" from the stands, while Northern Ireland stuck to their game plan of limiting the visitors' chances to take a point and keep a second clean sheet of the campaign.

"A great point against the ex-world champions," Northern Ireland manager Nigel Worthington told a news conference.

"It was a performance of a lot of character and determination and resilience. I thought the discipline in the team shape was fantastic. Everybody stuck to their tasks.

"One of the pleasing things for me is that I have just come from the dressing room and the players are disappointed that we've not won the game from the point of view of maybe having the better chances and also we've not played as well as we can."

Like the hotch-potch stands at their Windsor Park ground and the shirts with no names on the back, it was a no frills display from Northern Ireland against the 2006 world champions.

The first half was even and the hosts had a big appeal for a penalty when Daniele De Rossi handled at point-blank range but the referee ignored the protests.

'DIFFICULT ATMOSPHERE'

Italy increased the pressure after the break and went close through Andrea Pirlo and Antonio Cassano but Cesare Prandelli's side lacked conviction in front of goal.

"It was a difficult atmosphere," the Italy coach, whose shiny shoes and tailored coat contrasted with his counterpart's tracksuit and football boots on the sideline, told a news conference.

"I am pleased with the work but not with the result but it was a fair result of the game."

The Azzurri, who had won their first two group games to recover from the shock of their early World Cup exit, next host Serbia in Genoa on Tuesday while Northern Ireland travel to the Faroe Islands.

Although chances on the pitch were few, there was barely a quiet moment off it as a sea of green-decked fans in makeshift stands sung and jumped around to create the kind of electric atmosphere that some new stadiums never seem to manage.

With Alberto Gilardino and Amauri injured for Italy, striker Marco Borriello was given the nod ahead of Giampaolo Pazzini to pick up his sixth cap and he was often involved in the action.

Straight after David Healy had headed a good chance wide for Northern Ireland, Borriello had an opportunity at the other end but his shot was easily saved by Maik Taylor and the slightly below-par Cassano could only bend the rebound past the post.

Stefano Mauri, making his first Italy appearance since 2007, headed directly at the keeper as the fragile Azzurri laboured like so often in recent times despite some neat touches.

Finger nails were bitten in the dying minutes as home fans watched substitute Pazzini put his backpost header wide before Steven Davis scuffed his shot late on to deny Northern Ireland the chance of creating an even bigger upset.