Belfast Telegraph

Euro 2016: Northern Ireland have date with destiny

Northern Ireland 0 Romania 0

By Steven Beacom

When Northern Ireland started their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign on September 7 in Budapest last year, Michael O'Neill would have happily accepted finishing third in Group F knowing that his team would be guaranteed at least a play-off to reach the finals.

His opinion didn't change after a 2-1 win over Hungary in that opening match.

It has now.

O'Neill no longer has a top three position in his sights. All he is thinking about is a top two spot which would see Northern Ireland qualify for France automatically.

Come September 7 this year, he should know if that particular dream will come true.

Hungary, who won in Finland at the weekend, will be the visitors to Windsor Park then, exactly 10 years on from David Healy's unforgettable winner against England. An even more memorable night could be in store.

A few days before, Northern Ireland are away to the Faroe Islands while Hungary host Romania. Crucial clashes, but the crunch one for O'Neill will be in Belfast.

Currently, Romania head the group by one point with Northern Ireland in second and Hungary third, three points adrift of the leaders.

We know who will finish in the top half of the group. All that has to be decided is in which order.

"At the outset of the campaign the top three was our focus. We are obviously in a very, very strong position to at least obtain that but we are at a stage, that I as a manager and the players, want more than that," said O'Neill after Saturday's scoreless draw at home to Romania.

It was a poor game, in keeping with many internationals played in the month of June, but compelling nevertheless with so much at stake.

Romania were superior early on, though that was more to do with Northern Ireland's shaky start than outstanding play from the visitors. It wasn't until the latter part of the first half when the home side showed why they had won four out of their opening five fixtures in the group.

The Northern Ireland fans, minus the demolished Kop, created a cracking atmosphere throughout and the volume was cranked up just before the break when Romanian goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu saved a Jonny Evans header.

The second half was filled with tension and mistakes, including one from Gareth McAuley that almost led to the visitors taking the lead through Gabriel Torje, only for Evans to deflect his shot inches wide.

O'Neill's men finished strongly and Kyle Lafferty should have broken the deadlock only to snatch at a late chance which Tatarusanu easily saved. He was tested more seconds later by a brilliant Oliver Norwood free-kick which was tipped over.

At the final whistle, there was a sense of relief that it was over. O'Neill's verdict: "We could have won it. I didn't think we were going to lose.

"They came and made life difficult for us and there was very little time on the ball for either team and the players playing at this time of the year for both teams were maybe just not at their maximum because of that.

"The most pleasing thing for me was the level of desire the team showed. We contested every single ball and covered a lot of ground. We are slightly disappointed that we didn't win but when we reflect I think we will see it as a really good point."

O'Neill believes the best sides in Group F are Northern Ireland and Romania, though admitted Hungary may beg to differ.

He added: "The double header for us in September is now going to be key. We have a difficult game in the Faroes Islands and they will be buoyant after beating Greece at the weekend and then we have a massive game against Hungary here.

"They'll come here off the back of playing Romania so the picture will be very clear going into the Hungary game at Windsor in terms of what we need to do.

"We could find ourselves five points clear of Hungary, top of the group or a point behind Hungary.

"The hard work we put in in the early part of the campaign will hopefully set us up to see it through.

"Suddenly the group is looking tighter than it did before the start of the weekend but if you had offered us this situation after six games we would have taken it."

Belfast Telegraph