Euro 2016 qualifiers: Northern Ireland held by table-toppers Romania

Northern Ireland’s top of the table clash with Euro 2016 qualifying Group F leaders Romania ended in a cagey stalemate at a still under renovation Windsor Park.

Michael O’Neill’s men remain in contention to feature at the France finals next summer, but dropping a couple of home points has allowed third-place Hungary to close the gap on them to two courtesy of a late win in Finland.

Regular number one Roy Carroll was ruled out in the build-up to the game through injury, so Michael McGovern deputised in goal, but was rarely tested by Romania.

Kyle Lafferty, Northern Ireland’s top scorer in qualifying, spurned their best openings, shooting tamely from distance at Ciprian Tatarusanu during an evenly-matched first-half.

Romania were not at full strength for this Belfast battle with skipper and regular left Razvan Rat joining Premier League pair Costel Pantilimon and Florin Gardos, plus the influential Lucian Sanmartean being out injured.

Soccer - UEFA European Championship Qualifying - Group F - Northern Ireland v Romania - Windsor Park

Lafferty saw another strike deflect wide and Jonny Evans tested Tatarusanu, forcing him to tip a header over before the break.

Brentford winger Stuart Dallas lashed just wide after the interval before Claudiu Keresu shot straight at McGovern, and Gabriel Torje failed to punish a rare Northern Irish lapse in concentration.

Norwich City-owned attacker Lafferty almost won it for the hosts six minutes from time when Gareth McAuley’s set-piece knockdown found him one-on-one, but he could not direct his effort past Tatarusanu.

Romania preserved another competitive clean sheet – their fifth in six Euro 2016 qualifiers – when Tatarusanu palmed over Oliver Notwood’s late free-kick to ensure honours finished even.

Although just three points separate Romania in top spot from Hungary in third in this pool, Northern Ireland, now 4/1 to top the group, could benefit from their main rivals playing each other next in September.

O’Neill and his men face a tricky trip to the Faroe Islands next, though, who took the scalp of Euro 2004 winners Greece.