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North move that bit closer to France as Romania draw blank

Northern Ireland's Chris Brunt goes for goal from a free-kick during Saturday night's European Championship qualifier against Romania at Windsor Park
Kenny Archer at Windsor Park

2016 European Championship qualifying Group F:
Northern Ireland 0 Romania 0 

THERE'S no talking much about this poor match, but the one point earned could prove highly valuable - and leads to more talk of Euro 2016 qualification for Northern Ireland.

Perceptions can skew how one sees things, but a draw against a Romania team ranked 12th in the world and which has now only conceded one goal in six group games is nothing to roll your eyes about. Kyle Lafferty might have snatched victory for the hosts late on, but he snatched at his shot and goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu parried his effort. 

Yet as much as Northern Ireland might have won, they also might have lost, having been second best in the first half, and the sense of the point’s worth was obvious when the big centre-forward said: “Years ago, these are the games where we would have dropped points, but Michael's [O’Neill] got our mindset right now.”

Indeed, Lafferty insisted the players would be responsible, not the manager, if the ‘Green and White Army’ aren’t marching to France next summer: “If we mess this up, it’s us to blame. 

“We can’t look to blame anyone else, we can’t blame the manager because the way he organises us and sets us up is spot-on. It’s up to us and how much we want it and how much we want to send the country to the Euros.” 

Although most footballers welcome the summer break, especially after qualifiers in mid-June, Lafferty admitted the double-header away to the Faroes and home to Hungary in early September can’t come soon enough: “I’m pretty sure we will go out there [the Faroes] with the same mindset and determination. We know how close we are. All the lads are itching. We just wish the two games were next week. We’ve got a few weeks’ holiday and then we go back to our clubs, look forward to meeting up in August and kicking on with the campaign.

“I can’t wait. That’s the first game in five years that I’ve been nervous about. I was so excited to get out there. The trust Michael has shown in me, I’m so excited to play for him every time. I just can’t wait to pull on the shirt for him. I’ve a few weeks now to go and enjoy myself and then get back to work.”

Asked why he was nervous, he replied: “Obviously, it was such an important game. I’ve played in games to win the league for Rangers and cup finals, but I’d never felt like that today. We’re so close and everyone is starting to believe we can make it. I’m sure we will… 

“Michael has got us in the right mindset now. We’re not a team who will beat the top dogs and then lose against the lower teams”.

Still, home skipper Steven Davis admitted to “a sense of disappointment really” that his team hadn’t done the former, but immediately added: “Obviously, it’s a good point… and there are a lot of positives to take from it.” 

Automatic qualification is effectively now between these two teams and Hungary – who host rivals Romania in the next round of matches and scored that solitary goal Anghel Iordanescu’s men have conceded. 

Yet Davis insists he and his colleagues won’t be relaxing, nor underestimating the task facing them in the Faroe Islands, keeping the North’s standing in perspective: “We know what we are and where we are and, as soon as we’ve taken our eye off the ball in the past, we’ve been punished for it. 

“There’s a real determination in the squad and you saw that in the level of performance, the way we tried to close Romania down and stop them playing. Maybe we were just lacking that little bit of cutting edge in the final third tonight.” 

That was certainly the case before the break when the home side launched too many long ball towards even the ever-willing target man that is Lafferty. 

Romania put together more passes, but Alexandru Chipciu wasted two decent chances they created. First, drifting in from the left onto his favoured right foot he could only slice well wide after a piercing run through the centre by Gabriel Torje. Then, the lively visiting centre-forward Claudiu Keseru became the next provider for their number seven, but this time Chipciu’s shot, from the inside right side of the penalty area, was weak. 

In truth, Romania didn’t seriously trouble Michael McGovern, making his competitive debut due to Roy Carroll’s abdominal pains, although the ’keeper did well to punch away a Keseru corner whipped in at his near post.

Romania’s net-minder was finally forced into a more serious save as half-time approached. Although Chris Baird could not quite connect with Chris Brunt’s corner from the left, Jonny Evans deftly directed a header which the goalkeeper did well to tip over.

The North’s other player making a first competitive bow, left-winger Stuart Dallas, made much more of an impression early in the second half, firing a low shot narrowly wide, setting the tone for a shift in superiority.

Davis summed it up afterwards: “They’re a good team, but I thought we competed with them really well in the second half, we were the dominant side.” 

Indeed, Romania’s best opening came from an extremely under-hit back-pass by Gareth McAuley, which Torje seized on to race towards goal, but Jonny Evans deflected his shot inches wide. 

Neat interplay between Jamie Ward and Oliver Norwood ended with the latter, such a fine striker of a dead ball, shooting badly on the run, before a late flurry of chances for the men in green. A Davis back-heel set up Baird to shoot straight at the 'keeper, then Lafferty did likewise from that much clearer chance created by McAuley’s header. The next minute, Norwood rifled a fierce long-range free kick, but the lanky Tatarusanu again pushed the ball over his bar. 

Davis could afford to smile afterwards, even if results hadn’t gone exactly as he would have wished, what with Hungary having earlier grabbed a late winner in Finland, commenting: “The Hungary result has made things that little bit more interesting. It was never going to be an easy task to qualify and there are going to be some twists and turns along the way.

“That’s outwith our control, we can only do what we can do, and the lads have once again shown our desire to go and get a result. 

“Definitely, we’re still in a great position. I think every time we speak to the media the games are getting bigger and bigger – but that’s a nice place to be and, so far, we’ve dealt with the pressure well. 

“We’re just optimistic, we have to embrace the situation we’re in… If we keep putting in the effort and be disciplined, hopefully that will take us through.”

Northern Ireland: McGovern, McLaughlin,McAuley, Jonny Evans (Cathcart 79), Brunt, Ward (Corry Evans 79), Norwood, Davis, Baird, Dallas, Kyle Lafferty; Subs Not Used: Carson, Ferguson, McGinn, Grigg, McCourt, McNair, Hughes, Magennis, Lavery, Taylor; Booked: Brunt.
Romania: Tatarusanu, Papp, Sepsi, Chiriches, Grigore, Chipciu (Stancu 61), Pintilii, Torje, Prepelita, Keseru (Andone 72), Maxim (Tamas 90); Subs Not Used: Lung Jr, Moti, Bumba, Hoban, Vatajelu, Popa, Bicfalvi, Sapunaru, Balgradean; Booked: Pintilii, Sepsi, Torje.
Ref: C Velasco Carballo (Spain). 

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