Euro 2016 qualifier: Down but far from out after a tough night for Northern Ireland in Bucharest
Romania 2-0 Northern Ireland
Romania finally gained revenge in Bucharest last night for that World Cup qualifying defeat to Northern Ireland in 1985.
After waiting 29 years for redemption, two goals from right back Paul Papp inflicted brave Northern Ireland’s first defeat in Euro 2016 qualifying and allowed Romania to leap frog Michael O’Neill’s men at the top of Group F.
Romania were so desperate for victory at the Arena Nationala that they’d even brought in the coach from that particular era after training this week to tell the players they needed to make up for that defeat which ultimately cost them a place at the 1986 World Cup finals.
The Romanian players responded, but Northern Ireland, just like in 1985, defended heroically last night for large parts of the game and this defeat, against the best team in the group, was no disgrace.
The Northern Ireland players, wearing their new ‘home’ kit, a more traditional colour of green, and in front 1,000 Green and White Army members inside the impressive Arena Nationala, ran their hearts out and were left physically exhausted.
On nine points heading into the long winter break, Northern Ireland, especially after Greece’s shock defeat to the Faroe Islands, are still in a magnificent position in terms of automatic qualification.
With captain Steven Davis, Jamie Ward and Shane Ferguson unavailable due to injury, boss O’Neill deployed a 4-1-4-1 formation with Corry Evans taking the skipper’s place in the centre of midfield, Niall McGinn pushed out to the right wing, Chris Brunt on the left flank and Port Vale’s Ryan McGivern at left back.
Straight away the Romanians targeted McGivern down the right flank. Lucian Sanmartean, the 34-year-old who has been christened the ‘new Gheorghi Hagi’ in Romania, was sweeping balls to rampaging full back Paul Papp and winger Cristian Tanase.
And after Romania had won a corner from one of these advances down the right Spurs player Vlad Chiriches, on his 25th birthday, missed a great chance to give himself a present but his audacious scissor kick was gobbled up by keeper Roy Carroll.
On 16 minutes, Lafferty, scorer of three goals for Northern Ireland in this campaign so far, finally had an opportunity to run at the Romanian defence. After bursting into the box and being challenged, the ball was picked up by Brunt and from an acute angle sent his effort just widen of the post.
Seconds later Chris Baird had to head clear in the box and then the woodwork saved Northern Ireland — from a throw-in the ball was played into the box where Steaua Bucharest striker Alexandru Chipciu was left unmarked. His shot came back off the bar and when he attempted to head the rebound home a grateful Carroll was able to make the save from point blank range.
Romania, as anticipated, dominated possession and were surging forwards with authority but Northern Ireland were hitting them on the counter attack.
But they were very nearly made to pay on 32 minutes. The brilliant Sanmartean on a magnificent run sliced through the Northern Ireland defence at ease.
He first went past Evans and then both McLaughlin and big McAuley.
With the goal gaping, he unselfishly passed to Bogdan Stancu, but the striker slipped at the vital moment and Hughes was able to clear the ball for a corner.
The Romanians did appear terrified of Lafferty and when the Kesh man received the ball on 44 minutes, he turned his man, Papp, and raced into the box. But rather than blast the ball, he attempted to catch out keeper Tatarusanu at the near post with a neatly placed shot, but the Fiorentina No.2 managed to push the ball round for a corner.
Just before half time, Conor McLaughlin was booked for a late challenge on Stancu and the challenge must have hurt as he was replaced by Steaua’s Claudiu Keseru.
A lovely defence splitting through ball from sub Keseru left Rat one-on-one with Carroll, but the keeper stood up well and saved with his chest.
After receiving a yellow card, you could tell the Romanians were targeting Lafferty, hoping to get a reaction that may see him be shown a second.
The Romanians, after bringing on Alexandru Maxim for Tanase, were crying foul on 61 minutes when Sanmartean weaved his way towards the corner of Northern Ireland’s 18 yard box.
McGivern left out his leg and the Steaua man went down but the ref waved play on much to the relief of the men in green.
O’Neill decided to freshen things up bringing off McGinn and putting Sammy Clingan in to beef up the midfield.
Unsurprisingly, tiredness was creeping in and on 74 minutes Northern Ireland’s resistance was broken. Rat’s whipped in cross couldn’t be effectively cleared by McAuley and from 11 yards out Papp curled in a shot that gave Carroll no chance.
Now needing an equaliser, O’Neill brought on Inverness striker Billy McKay for Evans.
But Papp scored his second immediately after McKay’s introduction. A delightful cross from Sanmartean was met by Papp, who managed to get between McGivern and Hughes, at the back post to head home.
It was tough on Northern Ireland.
However, they can leave Bucharest with their heads held high, still in a great position when they face Finland next March.
And for Romania, revenge is sweet.
How they rated on the night
Roy Carroll 7: Couldn’t be faulted for either of the goals and made a smart save from Rat. His excellent game management couldn’t save the team.
Conor McLaughlin 7: Picked up a yellow card for a rash challenge on Stancu just before the break. Defended admirably in difficult circumstances.
Gareth McAuley 7: Nutmegged by Stancu in the first half, but Romania chance the opportunity. He could do nothing about either of the Romanian goals.
Aaron Hughes 7: Beat the odds to play in the game after a recent injury and played reasonably well in another backs-against-the-wall display.
Ryan McGivern 5: Back in the team, this was a big chance for him and he didn’t take it. Was slow for the first goal and lost Papp for the second goal.
Chris Baird 6: Has been crucial to Northern Ireland’s good form, screening the back four, but was unable to prevent Romania streaming forward.
Niall McGinn 6: Supposed to be the outlet on the right-flank that enabled a quick transition from defence to attack, but didn’t see enough of the ball.
Corry Evans 6: Moved into central midfield after performing on the wing in Hungary and Greece. Gave his all but was unable to have much impact.
Oliver Norwood 6: Without Steven Davis beside him in midfield this was a big occasion for Norwood, but he struggled to gain a foothold in the game.
Chris Brunt 7: Came close to scoring in the first half with a shot that went just wide. He supplied a range of good passes, but it was ultimately fruitless.
Kyle Lafferty 7: Maybe should have shot rather than squaring to Niall McGinn. Other than that he did the thankless task of lone front man very well.