By Jay Mwamba
Northern Ireland suffered a crushing defeat ahead of their World Cup qualifier with the Czech Republic later this month, succumbing 4-0 to Norway in Belfast last Wednesday.
The night at Windsor Park was further marred by sectarian abuse heaped on midfielder Neil Lennon, a Catholic making his first appearance for the North since his move to Celtic from English side Leicester City.
Lennon, who left the stadium before the end of the match after a prior agreement to play only 45 minutes, later put his international career in doubt.
"I will go back to my family and discuss things with them and then talk to my club," he was reported as saying, adding, "we’ll just take things from there, but I know it is difficult enough trying to prepare for an international without all of this added pressure. I know I can certainly do without that and wouldn’t like to go through it again."
The Norwegians were in the driver’s seat from kick off and went ahead in the 20th minute when Thorstein Helstad scored the first of his two goals off a poor back pass by Aaron Hughes.
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John Carew (30th) and Stale Stensass (37th) increased the tally before Helstad wrapped it up in the 49th minute.
The North’s best chance came in the second minute, when skipper Gerry Taggert, winning his 50th cap, sent the ball agonizingly wide of the upright with a diving header.
The loss was Northern Ireland’s heaviest under coach Sammy McIlroy.
Their next opponents, the Czech Republic, drew 1-all with Macedonia in a friendly in Skopje, thanks to Pavel Kuka’s 43rd minute equalizer. Georgi Hristov (34th) had earlier put Macedonia ahead.
Louis Figo struck twice as Portugal sank Andorra 3-0 in Madeira to go four points clear at the top of Ireland’s World Cup qualifying group.
The world’s most expensive player was on target in the first and 48th minutes in the effortless Portuguese victory in Group 2. Pauleta (36th) was the other scorer.
Portugal (10) now lead Group 2 by four points over joint second Cyprus and Estonia. Ireland (1-2-0) are fourth, 5 points behind Portugal, albeit with a game in hand to Figo and company.
The Cypriots, meanwhile, warmed up for the Republic’s March 24 visit to the Mediterranean Island with a gutsy 4-3 extra time win over 10-man Ukraine in a Four-Nation tournament in Nicosia.
PAOK striker Yiannakis Okkas (17th), Yiotis Engomitis (39th), Cypriot skipper Costas Malekkos (80th), and Charis Charalambous (104th) scored for the home side. Olexander Melashchenko (9th) and Andryi Vorobei (57th, 63rd) were the Ukrainian marksmen.
In Amsterdam, Holland, who are a point behind Ireland in Group 2 battled to a goalless draw with Turkey in another friendly.
Belgium took over the leadership in World Cup qualifying Group 6 with their biggest international victory ever, 10-1, against San Marino in Brussels.
Yves Vanderh’ghe (10th, 50th), Emile Mpenza (13th), Bart Goor (26th, 60th), Walter Baseggio (64th), Marc Wilmots (72nd) and Bob Peeters (76th, 84th, 88th) connected for the home side.
Andy Selva got San Marino’s face-saver on the stroke of full time.
The haul lifted Belgium over Scotland on goal difference. Both teams have seven points and meet in Glasgow on March 24.
Swede Sven Goran Eriksson made a winning debut as England’s first foreign coach when his side mauled Spain 3-0 in Birmingham, on a night of friendly internationals across Europe.
Nick Barmby (38th), Emile Heskey (56th) and Ugo Ehiogu (70th) led the English charge in front of 42,129 fans.
Said Eriksson: "It was a better result than I’d hoped. When I woke up this morning I was hoping to win the game — but not 3-0."
Celtic United superstar Henrik Larsson (40th) led his native Sweden to a 3-0 romp over Malta with another sterling performance in Valletta. Karl Corneliusson (30th) and Hakan Mild (78th) were also on the mark.
Argentines Kily Gonzalez (36th) and Hernan Crespo (49th) overcame an early Italian goal to lead the South Americans to a 2-1 victory in Rome. Stefano Fiore (26th) had drawn first blood for Italy in the two nations firstmeeting in a decade.
Uruguay also came away from Ljubljana with a 2-0 decision over Slovenia, thanks to Nicolas Olivera (20th) and Marcelo Zalayeta (86th).
In Rijeka, Croatia knocked off Austria 1-0 on Davor Vugrinec’s 35th minute effort.
Nigerian-born striker Emanuel Olisadebe (21st) was the catalyst in Poland’s 4-0 rout of Switzerland in Larnaca, Cyprus. Brtosz Karwan (45th), Tomasz Hajto (60th pen), and Jacek Krzynowek (90th) got the other goals.
Greece and Russia produced a six-goal thriller in Crete that ended all square. Angelos Haristeas (2nd, 32nd) and Angelos Basinas (90th pen) were the Greek scorers, while Maxim Buznikin (34th, 70th) and Dmitry Kokhov (52nd) replied for Russia.
Bosnia’s Sergej Barberez (22nd) canceled out Ferenc Horvath’s 13th minuteeffort for Hungary in a 1-1 tie in Zenica.
There were also wins for Latvia, 2-0 over Liechtenstein in Vaduz on goals by Mihails Miholaps (63rd) and Maris Verpakovskis (66th); and Finland who edged Luxembourg 1-0 on Mik’l Forssell’s late strike (80th).