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O'Neill upbeat despite defeat

Manager Michael O'Neill was unbowed by Northern Ireland's first defeat of the Euro 2016 campaign, insisting qualification is still within sight.

After beginning the campaign with successive wins over Hungary, the Faroe Islands and Greece, O'Neill's men hit the wall in Bucharest. Romania dominated throughout and, although the visitors withstood the pressure for 74 gruelling minutes, right-back Paul Papp netted twice in quick succession to claim the points.

Victory sees Anghel Iordanescu's side leapfrog Northern Ireland at the Group F summit, a position they will hold again until at least March, but the message from O'Neill was defiantly upbeat.

With their toughest away days now out of the way and four of their remaining six fixtures at Windsor Park, a first major tournament appearance in 30 years remains on the cards.

"Nine points from four games, having gone to Budapest, Athens and Bucharest, is great and I'm proud of the effort the players have given," said O'Neill.

"The lads are genuinely disappointed because at 0-0 with 70 minutes gone you start to believe there's a point for you, maybe more if you can exploit your opportunities.

"But I told them not to be too despondent because we still have so much to play for in the second half of the campaign.

"We have four home games to look forward to and our most difficult away games are behind us.

"I think we will react well to this and recover. Our focus now is to win the next two home games, against Finland and Romania, where we have an opportunity to cement our place in the top three."

O'Neill made no attempt to detract from Romania's superiority, but could not help bemoan the absence of a handful of key men, with the absence of captain Steven Davis felt most keenly of all.

"We missed the players who were unavailable to us," O'Neill said. "Our captain Steven Davis, Shane Ferguson, Jamie Ward, Jonny Evans...these are all players who would come in and make us stronger.

"There's no doubt Steven being out weakens us, so if we'd have taken something it would have been a huge bonus.

"In these types of games Davis gives you the ability to stay on the ball, to play in tight areas and difficult circumstances. We probably didn't do those things as well without him.

"But we can still be proud of our effort and commitment. We can play better, no doubt about that, but we have to give credit to opponents who were excellent.

"Ultimately we have to hold our hands up and say the better team won the game."

Brighton defender Aaron Hughes, who busted a gut alongside Gareth McAuley to keep Northern Ireland afloat for so long, told Sky Sports: "We are still in a good position, it's by no means devastating, we just need to learn from a few things and keep going.

"We have just got to deal with it and get on with it."

Iordanescu, who enjoyed a winning start to his third stint in charge of Romania, feels his side now have one foot in France in two years' time and thinks O'Neill's squad could yet be joining them.

"For me Northern Ireland were and still are a big surprise in this group," he said.

"They are very organised and I'm sure they will record some more surprises before the end of the campaign.

"But we have made a major step towards the Euros, we have shaken off the pressure because we are the new leaders of the group."


From Belfast Telegraph