Football/Soccer

Boyce goal still not enough to secure first Nations League win by Northern Ireland

Goalscorer Liam Boyce (left) and Paddy McNair look happy after Northern Ireland take the lead against Romania - but it finished in a 1-1 draw.
Photo Desmond Loughery/Pacemaker Press
Kenny Archer at Windsor Park

Uefa Nations League B1, round six: Northern Ireland 1-1 Romania

THEY finished as they started, with a 1-1 draw against Romania, so Northern Ireland boss Ian Baraclough still hasn't master-minded a Nations League win.

Liam Boyce's goal 10 minutes into the second half seemed set to end the hosts' search for a first win in normal time for 14 months but visiting substitute Eric Bicfalvi netted a well-worked goal with 10 remaining.

Relegation to League C was confirmed, but a point is better than none, a draw is better than a defeat.

Indeed on a miserable night weather-wise any consolation had to be clutched at gratefully, like an umbrella in high wind.

It's good to get out of the house. No, it is, really.

The shirt numbers were nice and clear (even if the sky wasn't).

The highlighter of the night was Bailey Peacock-Farrell's luminescent jersey.

And at least NI avoided losing four matches in a row at Windsor, something last done during the crossover period between Lawrie McMenemy and Sammy McIlroy more than 20 years ago.

Aberdeen winger Mattie Kennedy came in for his first senior start, on the left of midfield in the same 3-5-2 formation deployed out in Austria, replacing Shane Ferguson.

Jonny Evans, back in defence along with usual partner Craig Cathcart, took the captain's armband after Stuart Dallas had worn it in Vienna, having reached 50 caps in the play-off final defeat by Slovakia; the Leeds man retained the right wing-back role.

Up front, Josh Magennis started instead of Conor Washington, with Liam Boyce again in the line-up.

The midfield three remained the same, with Michael Smith behind Paddy McNair and Ali McCann, and although the Hearts man looked a good fit in that 'sitting' role, there was little creative spark from the other two.

Boosted by Uefa's decision to award them a 3-0 win for the cancelled weekend home fixture with Norway, Romania boss Mirel Radoi handed a senior debut to Valentin Cretu at the age of 31, also on the right of midfield but in a 3-4-3 system.

The FCSB man – what was Steaua Bucharest – joined club-mates Iulian Cristea, Florin Tanase, and Dennis Man in the side, with the first-named getting only his second cap, as was the other wide midfielder, the Portugual-born Mario Camora.

Despite the disappointment of knowing that relegation was assured – barring a Norwegian appeal – the hosts began brightly, with McCann winning a free kick which McNair floated in for Evans to flick on, but Ballard could not connect beyond the far post.

Yet as the November rain drizzled down and blew around, that was as exciting as it got for quite some time. Man had a shot, but it was an easy save for the home 'keeper.

We've been through this such a long, long time

Just tryin' to kill the pain, ooh yeah

There was a moment of hilarity mixed with bafflement and fear as visiting centre-forward Denis Alibec swung and completely missed at a drilled low corner cut back – then claimed for a penalty in a vain attempt to cover the embarrassment of his air-shot. The referee seemed to be considering awarding a spot-kick, but his extravagant gesture translated to 'Get up, play on'.

At the other end Boyce connected much better – the fact that he connected at all was an obvious improvement – but his volley from McNair's flag kick still flew well over.

Kennedy finally showed his ability by taking a smart pass from Cathcart and beating his man on the outside, swinging over a left-footed centre which the stretching Boyce rose for and earned a corner.

Kennedy played his part in the opening goal, which was a reward for perseverance and quick thinking. Kennedy supplied the first, forcing a defence to concede a corner.

McNair then heard and heeded Smith's call, rolled the ball back to him, and he swept it across the box to the back post where Boyce slid it into the net.

On the hour Romania could have been level, though. Razvan Marin swung a free kick over from the left wing which the wind appeared to catch – but Peacock-Farrell definitely didn't. Fortunately Cristea's header was well off target.

The combination of the goal and that let-off seemed to send confidence coursing through the men in green, playing some quick, neat passing football. Smith found Kennedy on the left and his centre was half-volleyed sharply by McCann, but wide.

Yet it took an excellent piece of goalkeeping to deny Marin, on loan with Cagliari from Ajax, as he fizzed a rising drive which Peacock-Farrell flew to tip over.

However, with 10 minutes of normal time remaining, he was left rooted, helpless, as substitute Bicfalvi coolly side-footed in from a clever cut-back from Tanase, who had played a rapid 1-2 to find room on the left.

Into added time McNair delivered a dangerous free kick from the right and sub Conor McLaughlin leapt high – but his header flashed well wide.

The search for a first competitive win since late March 2019 against Belarus will go on into next year, and the qualifiers for World Cup 2022, but at least there were flashes of hope.

So never mind the darkness

We still can find a way

'Cause nothin' lasts forever

Even cold November rain.

 

Northern Ireland: Peacock-Farrell; Ballard, J Evans (capt.), Cathcart; Dallas, Smith, McNair, Smith (C McLaughlin, 79), McCann, Kennedy (Lewis, 66); Magennis (Galbraith, 79), Boyce (Washington, 66).

Romania: Tatarusanu (capt.); Nedelcearu, Cristea, Tosca (Bicfalvi, 74); Cretu (Mogos, 64), Marin, Nistor, Camora; Man (Maxim, 64), Alibec (Baluta, 87), Tanase (Ganea, 87).

Referee: Sandro Scharer (Switzerland).

 

Northern Ireland ratings:

Bailey Peacock-Farrell: Kicking out long, trying to find Magennis. Fine save to tip over Marin's fierce rising drive. 7

Daniel Ballard: Calm on the ball and positive when going to win it. Good passing range too. 7

Jonny Evans: The stand-in skipper was fairly assured, marshalling his defence, and using the ball well. 7

Craig Cathcart: A smart pass to give Kennedy some space. Made a strong block of a Marin shot. 7

Stuart Dallas: Didn't do as well in the right wing-back role as anticipated. One good low centre but over-hit a pass for Boyce and also a late crossing opportunity. 6.5

Michael Smith: Seems very well-suited to the defensive midfield role, intercepting and linking to good effect. Clever assist for the goal. 8

Paddy McNair: Alert to see Smith's run to set up goal and sent in some testing corners and free kicks. 7

Ali McCann: Didn't get into game much before the break but struck a decent half-volley and battled hard in midfield, always trying to create forward momentum. 7

Mattie Kennedy: Quiet at first but grew in confidence, whipping in a teasing cross, and forced corner which led to goal. Provided another half-chance for McCann. 7

Josh Magennis: A neat nod found Boyce early on but for all his running the big man made little impact on the match. 5.5

Liam Boyce: Always trying to hold the ball up and bring others into play. One headed chance was defended well but he wasn't to be denied for his second international goal. 7.5

Substitutes:

Jamal Lewis: Did well to make room but then hit his cross across the box far too hard. 6

Conor Washington: Came on for Boyce but didn't see much ball. 5.5

Conor McLaughlin: Almost won it in added time but flashed his header well wide. 6

Ethan Galbraith: The teenager received a warm welcome but mis-hit his effort when given space on the left. 6

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Football/Soccer