Northern Ireland will move to the top of their Euro 2016 qualifying group if they can beat leaders Romania, which would represent a giant stride towards their first major tournament appearance for 30 years.
The current situation has Michael O’Neill’s side in a remarkably strong position, a point behind their opponents but some four clear of Hungary, their nearest rivals for second place with seeded team Greece having woefully underperformed. Even at the halfway stage, it seems inconceivable that Northern Ireland will not at least end up in a play-off spot.
Here, they take on the only side that has beaten them so far in Group G. The 2-0 defeat in Bucharest in November merely serves as a blot on their copybook as all four of their other matches have been won, including away to Hungary and Greece. Last time out against Finland was a largely comfortable victory as Kyle Lafferty used his experience to score two fine goals, but it did get nervy towards the end as the Scandinavian side pulled one back.
The key behind Northern Ireland’s fine campaign thus far has been their immense spirit, determination and resilience, as well as the presence of a ruthless efficiency at the back. It will be needed again here as Romania are a side back on the rise. After two poor qualifying efforts, they lost to Greece in the play-offs for the 2014 World Cup and their position this time around is a mark the progress they have made.
The hosts will receive great backing despite the lack of accommodation at Windsor Park, but goalkeeper Michael McGovern is likely to make his first competitive international appearance in place of injured veteran Roy Carroll. Romania are without some key players, including stopper Costel Pantilimon, striker Ciprian Marica and playmaker Lucian Sanmartean for what looks set to be a keenly contested encounter.
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