DEFEAT in Bucharest â€“ but still far from downhearted. There remains a definite, positive pulse in this quietly determined Euro qualifying campaign for Northern Ireland even though there was a distinct gulf against a fluid Romania, who now top Group F.
Michael Oâ€™Neillâ€™s side may have been edged off the summit after two superb goals from the defender Paul Papp in the latter stages but in the grand scheme of things the finals in France remain a realistic destination.
One has to go all the way back to October 1985 for the last time the Ulstermen played in the Romanian capital, when they smuggled a one-goal victory under the brutalist gaze of Nicolae Ceausescuâ€™s communist regime. However, in this reformed era the Arena Nationala, a grand space age shrine to Romanian sport, built on the same spot where Billy Binghamâ€™s courageous team seized that particular day 29 years ago, Anghel Iordanescuâ€™s side illustrated exactly why they are the favourites to qualify.
Oâ€™Neill had admitted, pre-match, that this encounter â€“ rather than visits to Hungary, Greece or Finland â€“ was to be his sideâ€™s most significant test. The hostsâ€™ purpose â€“ in front of the legendary authority figure of Iordanescu, taking charge of the national squad for the third time â€“ was visible. While the contemporary Tricolorii lack a Gheorghe Hagi-type chief operator, and had five key players missing, they showed verve and technique in abundance. Oâ€™Neillâ€™s side have tasted success in both Hungary and Greece during this campaign but last night, with a team minus the captain Steven Davis, Jonny Evans and Jamie Ward, Northern Ireland found it taxing to retain possession.
â€œWe can be proud of our effort and commitment here,â€ said Oâ€™Neill. â€œWe can play better, no doubt about that, but we have to give credit to opponents who were excellent tonight. As I said before, this was a bonus game for us because Romania are the strongest team in the group. Nine points from four games having gone away to Budapest, Athens and Bucharest is great and Iâ€™m proud of the effort the players have given.â€
Romania showed early incision and were desperately unlucky not to have taken a 17th-minute lead when Alexandru Chipciu volleyed against the bar before his brave header from the rebound was swept up by Carroll. Better opportunities were carved by Iordanescuâ€™s side in front of a raucous crowd and a clip into space by Claudiu Keseru to the former West Ham man Razvan Rat â€“ winning his 101st cap â€“ resulted in a marvellous chest-high save by Carroll.
Both sides were guilty of rough house manoeuvres and the solo striker Kyle Lafferty was on the receiving end of his fair share. The outstanding Sanmartean remained the heartbeat of Romanian craft, living up to his pre-match billing.
Just as a bout of crowd trouble involving an angry section of the home support and the police threatened to get ugly, there was a timely distraction with the first goal after 73 minutes.
Rat whipped in a delicious left-foot cross from the flank and, after Gareth McAuley failed to clear properly, Papp slammed a marvellous shot past a helpless Carroll into the roof of the net from 12 yards. The strike had an air of inevitability about it â€“ the question was one of mere timing.
Five minutes later it was all over. Papp bravely muscled between Aaron Hughes and Ryan McGivern to power home an angled header, benefiting from a superb Sanmartean in-field cross. A magnanimous Oâ€™Neill paid tribute to . He said: â€œWe struggled to get close to Sanmartean. He was fantastic on the night. Heâ€™s 34 years of age so I donâ€™t know where heâ€™s been hiding all these years. We struggled to deal with his passing and dribbling.â€
For all that, Northern Ireland have dealt admirably so far, with their toughest tasks, in theory, out of the way. Meanwhile Iordanescu offered his own encouragement to the Irish. He declared: â€œFor me, Northern Ireland were and still are a big surprise in this group. They are very organised and Iâ€™m sure they will record some more surprises before the end of the campaign.
â€œBut we have made a major step towards the Euros. We have shaken off the pressure because we are the new leaders of the group.â€ Northern Irelandâ€™s own self-esteem remains high. Despite this setback there will be no room for navel gazing. – The Guardian