Northern Ireland ended another dismal Nations League campaign without a win as a late Romania equaliser held them to a draw at Windsor Park.
A flat first half was lifted by a well-worked Liam Boyce goal soon after the interval that was levelled by visiting substitute Eric Bicfalvi.
It left NI with two points from six matches.
Four defeats and two draws, which both came against Wednesday’s opposition, means Northern Ireland finished bottom of Group B1, six points behind third-placed Romania.
It means they will drop into the third tier of a competition in which they have now lost eight and drawn two of their 10 outings.
Watched again by a home crowd of just over 1,000, Northern Ireland were unable to deliver what would have been a first victory during 90 minutes in manager Ian Baraclough’s first eight games in charge, and added to the disappointment of last week’s Euro 2020 play-off final defeat by Slovakia.
Boyce’s second international goal – his first since June 2017 – came from a well-worked move in the 56th minute. Paddy McNair played a short corner to Michael Smith and his inviting cross was met by Boyce at the back post, who scrambled home from close range.
The galvanised home side seized the initiative and looked to be heading for a much-needed win before the visitors came back into it and equalised when Florin Tanase squared it from the left and Bicfalvi swept home a well-guided finish into the bottom corner.
Drab first half does nothing for morale
Given the relegation from the second tier of the Nations League that was confirmed a few hours before kick-off, Northern Ireland were in need of a lift as much as ever going into the match.
To say the first half failed to deliver that morale boost is an understatement, as both sides played a flat 45 minutes that was hugely lacking in creativity and excitement – indeed of any real attacking play.
With a strong wind and lashing downpour filling the Belfast air, the start was encouraging as Daniel Ballard met an inswinging McNair free-kick at full stretch at the back post, but was unable to control his effort and it went wide.
Six minutes later the inexperienced visitors had their only effort on goal in the half but, as he cut inside, Dennis Man’s low shot was a tame one and it was easily collected by Bailey Peacock-Farrell in what was a rare involvement for the Burnley goalkeeper.
A Boyce volley over the crossbar from a corner and a blocked header from a cross by debutant Matty Kennedy proved to be the only other incidents of note as the players gave the small crowd next to nothing to get excited about.
NI substitutions disrupt shape and let visitors in
It can be easy to get carried away with tactics and shape, but in the search for positives at the end of another winless Nations League series, Northern Ireland’s solidity in a 3-5-2 formation has been encouraging.
Baraclough deployed it in Austria on Sunday and it looked like delivering a victory until two late defensive lapses. He set his team up the same way against Romania and it does look like a system that could be one to build on for next year’s World Cup qualifiers.
While the attacking side of the approach did not work at all in the first half, a back three marshalled superbly by stand-in captain Jonny Evans – with Craig Cathcart and the increasingly impressive Daniel Ballard either side – looked comfortable, as toothless as Romania were.
There was a renewed vigour about Northern Ireland’s attack after the break, however, and Boyce had passed up a decent headed opportunity before he ended his long search for a second international goal after inventive work from McNair and Smith.
Ali McCann, who again impressed after a confident debut against Austria, came close with a half volley before a number of substitutions made by Baraclough seemed to disrupt their rhythm and hand momentum to Romania.
It was difficult to ascertain exactly who was playing where during the final 20 minutes as the visitors crept into the match, with Bicfalvi denied by a superb Bailey Peacock-Farrell save before hitting the equaliser nine minutes from time.
It brought an end to a hugely challenging opening spell at the helm for former Under-21 boss Baraclough, who will now be eagerly awaiting December’s World Cup qualifying draw as he aims to halt a poor run of results and plot a first World Cup qualification since 1986.
- 19SmithSubstituted forGalbraithat 79′minutes
- 7KennedySubstituted forLewisat 66′minutes
- 21MagennisSubstituted forMcLaughlinat 79′minutes
- 9BoyceSubstituted forWashingtonat 67′minutes
- 3ToscaSubstituted forBicfalviat 74′minutes
- 2CretuSubstituted forMogosat 64′minutes
- 22Malino Paulino
- 20ManSubstituted forMaximat 64′minutes
- 7AlibecSubstituted forBalutaat 87′minutes
- 19TanaseSubstituted forGaneaat 87′minutes
- Sandro Schärer
Match ends, Northern Ireland 1, Romania 1.
Second Half ends, Northern Ireland 1, Romania 1.
Attempt missed. Conor McLaughlin (Northern Ireland) header from the centre of the box misses to the left. Assisted by Patrick McNair with a cross following a set piece situation.
Foul by Eric Bicfalvi (Romania).
Alistair McCann (Northern Ireland) wins a free kick on the right wing.
Foul by Alexandru Maxim (Romania).
Jamal Lewis (Northern Ireland) wins a free kick on the left wing.
Corner, Northern Ireland. Conceded by Razvan Marin.
Substitution, Romania. Alexandru Mihail Baluta replaces Denis Alibec.
Substitution, Romania. Cristian Ganea replaces Florin Tanase.
Goal! Northern Ireland 1, Romania 1. Eric Bicfalvi (Romania) left footed shot from the centre of the box to the bottom left corner. Assisted by Florin Tanase.
Substitution, Northern Ireland. Ethan Galbraith replaces Michael Smith.
Substitution, Northern Ireland. Conor McLaughlin replaces Josh Magennis.
Foul by Eric Bicfalvi (Romania).
Michael Smith (Northern Ireland) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Corner, Romania. Conceded by Bailey Peacock-Farrell.
Attempt saved. Razvan Marin (Romania) right footed shot from outside the box is saved in the top right corner. Assisted by Eric Bicfalvi.
Attempt blocked. Razvan Marin (Romania) left footed shot from the centre of the box is blocked. Assisted by Eric Bicfalvi.
Substitution, Romania. Eric Bicfalvi replaces Alin Tosca.
Offside, Romania. Florin Tanase tries a through ball, but Alexandru Maxim is caught offside.