Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland Under 21 left facing an uphill battle in Euro qualification

Romania 3 Northern Ireland 0

Slow start: Ian Baraclough’s U21s still sit on two points
Slow start: Ian Baraclough’s U21s still sit on two points

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland's campaign in the Under-21 European Championship qualifiers goes from bad to worse. Ian Baraclough is not a man to give up but the dream of reaching the 2021 finals looks a distant one now.

They are four games in and have only two points to show for their efforts after losing 3-0 in Romania last night.

The visitors were always going to be up against it when Celtic goalkeeper Conor Hazard was red-carded in the first half and so it proved.

The result leaves Baraclough's side in fifth in the six-team group with only Malta below them.

Denmark are now the leaders on the back of a 1-0 success in Finland yesterday. The Danes have nine points from nine, Finland have seven, Romania six and Ukraine are on three.

Only the group winners qualify automatically so even at this stage that is a big ask for Northern Ireland. There is more hope of a runners-up spot, which guarantees a play-off, but that is a tall order too.

On the upside, Baraclough's team have played three difficult games in Finland, Denmark and Romania so they all have to come to Northern Ireland.

Last night, Baraclough was boosted by having Linfield striker Shayne Lavery and Cardiff defender Ciaron Brown to call on.

Both players were released from senior international duty by Michael O'Neill.

Lavery was in lively form in an encouraging opening for the away side but things started to go wrong in the 38th minute when Hazard was dismissed.

The Celtic ace was shown a red card after colliding with Romanian midfielder Dennis Man.

It was a crushing blow for Northern Ireland, who brought on Liam Hughes to replace Hazard with midfielder Ethan Galbraith sacrificed.

Despite being down to 10 men, Northern Ireland had an opportunity before the break when Lavery fired wide after a long throw from Kofi Balmer.

In the second period, Romania upped the ante and took the lead on 48 minutes when Tudor Baluta's drive went in off the woodwork.

More was to follow with the home side doubling their advantage on 59 minutes with Valentin Mihaila finding the net. The third and final goal arrived seven minutes later when Andrei Ciobanu scored.

Baraclough's players will have the chance to exact revenge next month when Romania travel to the Ballymena Showgrounds. It is a must-win for Northern Ireland if they are to give themselves a chance of qualification.

Romania U21: Vlad, Ratiu (Velisar 63), Pascanu, Chindris, Boboc, Oaida, Baluta (Ricardo 79), Ciobanu, Man (Dragus 69), Petre (Neicutescu 69), Mihaila (Ganea 69).

N Ireland U21: Hazard, Balmer, Toal, Brown, Graham (Thompson 75), McCalmont (Parkhouse 74), McCann, Gordon (Boyd-Munce 74), Dunwoody (Palmer 61), Galbraith (Hughes 38), Lavery.

Referee: Nejc Kajtazovic (Slovenia)

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