N IRELAND 0 ROMANIA 0
Northern Ireland earned a spirited point against Group F leaders Romania to keep their Euro 2016 dream firmly on track.
There were no goals in an attritional game, but it was a night of raw tension at Windsor Park.
Northern Ireland almost claimed maximum reward with a rousing finale, but Kyle Lafferty and Oliver Norwood were both denied by Romania goalkeeper Cirprian Tatarusani in the last seven minutes.
Lafferty snatched at a volley in the 83rd minute that was saved, and Norwood had a rasping free-kick tipped over moments later.
It is as you were in Group F with Romania still a point ahead of Northern Ireland, but Hungary have inched closer in third – now two points behind Michael O’Neill’s side.
O’Neill handed competitive debuts to goalkeeper Michael McGovern and winger Stuart Dallas.
McGovern was an eleventh hour replacement for Roy Carroll – missing with an abdominal problem – while Dallas was favoured on the left flank in place of Niall McGinn.
Romania were missing Lucian Sanmartean and Razvan Rat due to injury with Tottenham defender Vlad Chiriches captaining the side.
A raucous atmosphere was provided by 10,000 fans inside the new-look Windsor, with refurbishment work continuing at the south Belfast stadium.
The home crowd were almost muted in the second minute when Claudiu Keseru flashed a 35-yard free-kick wide of the post.
Steven Davis then made a last-ditch tackle to deny Alexandru Chipciu following a quick break from the visitors.
At the other end Lafferty was played in by Jamie Ward but the normally prolific striker lost his footing as he was lining up a shot.
Lafferty then tried his luck from distance but the effort was tame and easily gathered by Tatarusanu.
Romania’s intricate passing game was a constant threat, and in the 19th minute Gabriel Torje went on a meandering run before teeing up Chipciu who sliced his shot well wide.
Norther Ireland managed to ease the pressure by earning a corner in the 20th minute.
And it was a set-piece taken from the training pitch with Norwood floating out a pass to Davis who had time to control the ball before lifting a shot well over the bar.
Romania midfielder Mihai Pintilii appeared fortunate to avoid a red card following a lunging tackle on Conor McLaughlin.
Referee Carlos Carballo produced yellow, much to the disdain of the home fans.
Chipciu managed to get in behind Northern Ireland’s defence in the 31st minute but the winger’s shot was poor.
Northern Ireland goalkeeper McGovern did well to punch Keseru’s inswinging corner off the line in the 37th minute.
Northern Ireland should have won a corner when Lafferty’s low shot was deflected behind, but a bye-ball was the verdict from the referee’s assistant.
Dallas rattled the woodwork in the 40th minute, but the winger had used his arm to control a pass in the build-up.
Northern Ireland finally tested Tatarusanu in the 43rd minute.
Chris Brunt’s corner was missed by the inrushing Chris Baird, but Jonny Evans managed to direct a header goalwards which the Romania keeper tipped over.
Dallas had two efforts on goal inside the opening seven minutes of the second half.
They both came from Norwood corners, with the first strike flashing wide and the second ballooning into the East Stand.
Brunt then delivered a wicked cross from the left flank that Lafferty could only head over in the 56th minute.
Romania remained a danger, with Keseru finding space inside the box before unleashing a shot that McGovern held.
Northern Ireland almost conspired their own downfall in the 64th minute.
Gareth McAuley’s woeful pass was intercepted by Torje, but after bearing down on goal the winger’s shot was deflected inches wide by Evans.
Brunt then blasted a free-kick into the stands from a decent position on the right side of the box.
Norwood squandered a decent shooting opportunity following another stray clearance from Tatarusanu.
Baird then had a snap shot from the edge of the box saved by Tatarusanu.
Lafferty had his big chance in the 83rd minute.
A deep free-kick was nodded down by McAuley for Lafferty to meet on the volley, but the shot bounced straight to Tatarasanu who did well to parry.
Norwood then forced the Romania keeper into a fingertip save with a rasping 25-yard free-kick.
N IRELAND: McGovern, McLaughlin, McAuley, J. Evans (Cathcart 80), Baird, Davis, Lafferty, Brunt, Dallas, Norwood, Ward (C. Evans 79).
Subs not used: Taylor, Carson, Ferguson, McGinn, Grigg, McCourt, McNair, Hughes, Magennis, Lavery.
ROMANIA: Tatareusanu, Papp, Sepsi, Chirliches, Chipciu (Stancu 61), Pintilii, Maxim (Tamas 90), Torje, Keseru (Andone 72), Prepelita, Grigore.
Subs not used: Lung, Balgradean, Moti, Bumba, Hoban, Vatajelu, Popa, Bicfalvi, Sapunaru.
Referee: Carlos Velasco Carballo (Spain)