Belfast Telegraph

A disappointing end to what has been a fantastic year

By Steven Beacom

Defeat then. Disappointing sure, but let’s not be disheartened. Despite losing in Romania last night and deservedly so, Northern Ireland remain in a strong position to qualify for the Euro 2016 finals in France.

Michael O’Neill’s men have nine points from four games, three of which have been away, and are second in Group F.

Who wouldn’t have taken that at the start of this campaign?

The manager would have turned into Luis Suarez and bitten your arm off for that record.

Of course O’Neill wanted to stay top of the table until March, when the next set of fixtures will take place, but in Bucharest the bottom line was that ultimately his side weren’t good enough to do so.

Two late goals from raiding Romanian full-back Paul Papp ended any hopes of Northern Ireland securing the point they needed to be the Christmas number one.

It was no disgrace to lose to Romania last night.

They are a decent side and easily the best O’Neill’s team have faced in the qualifiers.

What should be noted, however, is they are far from world beaters and had the visitors provided more quality service to Kyle Lafferty I doubt their defence could have coped.

Lafferty, who has feasted on goals in the last three games, had to live off crumbs in Bucharest.

Any opportunities that came his way were carved out by himself and on the rare occasions Lafferty ran at the home rearguard, it  looked shaky and insecure.

That is a memory the Northern Ireland players must bank for when these two meet again in Belfast in June.

Given some of the rough treatment dished out to the Norwich City striker last night and an opponent play acting to earn him a booking, I’m sure Lafferty will be keen to exact revenge.

All in all, it wasn’t Kyle’s night.

But then, he and the team still have plenty to be proud of almost halfway into this campaign.

It began with a brilliant comeback victory in Hungary with Niall McGinn and Lafferty on target in the opening qualifier in September.

Then came a 2-0 home win over the Faroe Islands last month when Gareth McAuley and Lafferty found the net with Roy Carroll saving a penalty.

A few days later O’Neill’s men went to the ancient city of Greece and created some history of their own by becoming the first Northern Ireland side to triumph in their opening three qualifying fixtures thanks to a 2-0 success against Greece... Jamie Ward struck early on Lafferty produced a piece of magic after the break to seal the game.

Last night promised to be the toughest test yet against a Romania side, also unbeaten in their first three matches with seven points, and so it proved.

In Lucian Sanmartean Romania had the star man. That guy sure can play.

Watching him you could understand why a few years ago there was a Facebook campaign to restore him to the Romanian national team.

While Sanmartean was the playmaker, it was Papp who turned out to be the goalscoring hero perfectly timing runs into the box twice in the 74th minute and 79th and finish with aplomb to send the passionate Romanian fans crazy with delight.

Reflecting on those strikes, Northern Ireland will feel they could have been prevented, but to give credit to Papp his ambition was rewarded.

Up until then Northern Ireland had defended stoutly and for long periods of the game had looked comfortable, bar when in the first half the entire team seemed to fall asleep and Alexandru Chipciu hit the bar and then Bogdan Stancu somehow failed to score after a dazzling Sanmartean run.

The problem as the match wore on was that the visitors didn’t keep hold of the ball so the attacks kept coming. Clearly missing captain Steven Davis, too often clearances were hacked away to a yellow shirt when a little composure may have found a green one.

That will have to worked on for the home game against Finland in March, though manager O’Neill and a full house crowd will expect Northern Ireland to be doing the pressing rather than the other way around.

The boss and his players can look back on 2014 with satisfaction, a year in which they brought joy and hope to the Northern Ireland supporters again.

And while last night wasn’t the way to cap a fine year, think how Greece fans are thinking right now.

The Greeks lost 1-0 at home to the Faroes last night effectively ending any chance they have of qualification and with Hungary beating Finland, more and more it is looking like a race between Romania, Northern Ireland and the Hungarians to claim the top two places in Group F and automatic entry into the Euro finals.

Expect the two sides who played in Bucharest last night to make their dreams come true.

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