Northern Ireland 1-1 Romania
It was a point in the wrong direction for Northern Ireland.
The men in green secured just their second draw in Nations League competition, but it counted for little after their relegation to the third tier of European football was confirmed a few hours before kick-off.
UEFA had announced Romania had been awarded a 3-0 victory over Norway after their match was postponed due to Covid-19 related issues in the Norwegian camp. Therefore, the Romanians could no longer be caught in third spot and Northern Ireland’s fate was sealed.
Northern Ireland’s players, it seemed, were just glad this competition, brought in to replace friendlies, was finally over.
In 10 Nations League matches, over two campaigns, they are still without a win.
Two draws, both against Wednesday night’s visitors, and eight defeats is the damning statistic.
On a freezing, rain-soaked night at Windsor Park, with the pitch in horrendous condition, Northern Ireland endured that sinking feeling.
Hearts striker Liam Boyce scored just his second international goal to give Northern Ireland the lead and misguided hope. Of course, it wasn’t enough to secure victory with Romania substitute Eric Bicfalvi equalising with nine minutes remaining.
While a draw was frustrating at least it avoided Baraclough’s men being the first Northern Ireland side since 2000 to lose four straight games at Windsor Park.
Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough, having restored Bailey Peacock Farrell between the posts, once again opted for a back three with young Daniel Ballard gaining valuable experience alongside Craig Cathcart and Jonny Evans, who captained the side in Steven Davis’ absence.
With the midfield decimated due to Davis, George Saville, Corry Evans, Niall McGinn and Jordan Thompson being ruled out for various reasons, Baraclough kept Paddy McNair and Ali McCann in the middle of the park, Michael Smith continued in the holding role, and Aberdeen’s Matty Kennedy, making his international debut, started as the left wing back with Stuart Dallas, an every present through this Nations League campaign, taking up position on the right flank.
Josh Magennis, after his goal in Vienna, was reinstalled to the starting line-up alongside Liam Boyce.
Romania, wearing their striking canary yellow kit and also starting with three at the back, were without Rangers ace Ianis Hagi with the youngster having been dropped to the under-21s while Reading’s George Puscas, score of the Romanians’ goal in Bucharest against Northern Ireland,
With the game having no major relevance in the group, it was a lacklustre opening 45 minutes.
Set pieces, so long an important part of Northern Ireland’s arsenal, have proved to be a non-existent form of attack throughout this Nations League campaign, That nearly changed inside 60 seconds as McNair whipped a teasing free kick, the ball evaded the head of Evans but Ballard charging in at the back post couldn’t convert.
Peacock-Farrell, on eight minutes had to make a save at his near post from Dennis Man and that actually proved to be the only shot on target through a lacklustre opening spell.
Romania enjoyed plenty of possession, they liked to surge forward with Portuguese born left wing back Camora seeing plenty of the ball in the early exchanges but their final ball, similar to Northern Ireland was appalling.
Ballard, Evans and Cathcart kept a tight ship at the back.
Northern Ireland, as boredom started to set in, began to play some decent football on the half hour mark with the two Scottish based boys McCann and Kennedy linking up well.
Boyce fired over from another inviting McNair corner and Smith, once again in the Corry Evans role, did well to block a shot from Florin Tanase, when found in plenty of space.
Kennedy, down the left wing, was Northern Ireland’s most exciting player in the first half, actually doing something which has been foreign to the men in green during these autumn internationals and took his man on at speed and delivered decent crosses.
With two minutes, Boyce couldn’t direct a Kennedy cross goalwards.
Baraclough’s boys increased the tempo after the break, the Romanians were giving ball away too easily yet Northern Ireland still couldn’t exploit.
Until the 56th minute and Northern Ireland's first attempt on target; a move straight from the Hearts training group.
McNair played a short corner to Smith who whipped in a tantalising low cross with his left football towards the back post where Boyce bundled it the ball in at the back post.
Finally, Baraclough’s men had scored first against their opposition and it was only Northern Ireland’s fourth goal at Windsor Park in their last seven games, with two of those having been own goals.
Northern Ireland were now dominating, the game was largely being played in the Romania half with McNair, Kennedy, Dallas, McCann and Smith moving the ball well for Magennis and Boyce.
Northern Ireland though had to endure an almighty scare on 62 minutes when after a rare foray upfield, Romania won a free kick which was sent in at pace, Peacock-Farrell flapped but Iulian Cristea, at the back post, couldn’t hit the target.
Romania made a double substitution in an attempt to change momentum, but it was McCann, on 64 minutes, who came within inches of scoring his first international goal and doubling Northern Ireland ‘s advantage with a blistering shot passed the post after great work from Kennedy.
Baraclough brought on Conor Washington and Jamal Lewis for Kennedy and Boyce, and Northern Ireland were suddenly back on the defensive with Smith and Ballard having to make some great blocks.
Then came Ethan Galbraith’s second international cap, his first competitive match, when the 19 year-old Manchester United midfielder, was introduced along with Conor McLaughlin for Smith and Magennis.
Northern Ireland were given a warning of Romania’s intent when Peacock-Farrell had to make decent save Razvan Marin and nine minutes from time, the eastern Europeans equalised through their substitute Eric Bicfalvi, who was left in acres of room in the box after a pull back from Florin Tanase, he tucked the ball home. It was a well worked move down the left, but Northern Ireland will be bitterly disappointed at the amount of space Bicfalvi was afforded in the box.
Northern Ireland still had plenty of defending to do to see out the game, yet in the dying minutes of injury time, it was McLaughlin who flashed a header wide from a McNair free kick.
The end of international football for 2020 after a truncated year.
No wins, just two draws against Romania and when the Nations League comes round again in 18 months time, Northern Ireland will be in the third tier of the competition and their penance will be triple headers in June and September along with possible journeys to Belarus, Lithuania, Armenia and Georgia.
2020 had so much potential for Northern Ireland with the Euro play-off, but as in society with the pandemic, it has certainly been a miserable year and one to forget.
Here's the game as it happened: