Euro 2016: N. Ireland finish top of group, Albania qualify for first time
Northern Ireland were denied a seventh win of their triumphant Euro 2016 campaign, but a point in Finland was still enough to see them break new ground by winning Group F. In doing so they held off Romania and became the first fifth seeds in European qualifying history to finish top of the pile.
Craig Cathcart looked to have delivered even better when he headed home a maiden international goal in the first half but, after a lethargic display, Finland nicked a 1-1 draw three minutes from time through Paulus Arajuuri.
Thursday’s win over Greece had already guaranteed a trip to France next summer, but manager Michael O’Neill was desperate to finish the job as pool winners.
It was mission accomplished on that front and their return of 21 points tells its own story. They managed just seven in O’Neill’s first campaign at the helm.
That 10 of those points have come away from home is an incredible achievement for a nation so long afflicted by chronic homesickness.
Watford defender Cathcart was probably the only player on the pitch who salvaged something for his scrapbook, but his team-mates will have plenty of chances when Northern Ireland contest their first major tournament in 30 years.
O’Neill promised on the eve of the match that there would be no undue experimentation and he delivered a strong starting XI bolstered by the return of seven-goal top-scorer Kyle Lafferty and midfielder Chris Baird.
But with Finland listless and the vast Olympic Stadium sparsely populated on its last active night before demolition, the opening fell flat.
It took an errant pass from Arajuuri to jolt Northern Ireland into action, Stuart Dallas picking up the loose ball and drilling a low shot too close to the goalkeeper.
The subsequent corner was only cleared as far as Chris Brunt on the edge of the area and his sweetly struck drive might have crept under the crossbar had it not struck his team-mate Gareth McAuley flush on the back.
There was an injury scare in the 13th minute when Manchester United’s Paddy McNair crumpled after a challenge from Jere Uronen but, after lengthy treatment, he was fit to continue.
Finland were struggling to string together anything of note, but the visitors were also too sluggish to take advantage.
Albania 3-0 Armenia
Albania will play in the European Championship for the first time next year after beating Armenia 3-0 in a qualifier on Sunday.
The victory secured Albania second place in Group I, behind Portugal and ahead of Denmark.
Albania opened the scoring with an own goal by Armenia defender Kamo Hovhannisyan in the ninth minute, then added to the lead with a deflection by defender Berat Xhimshiti in the 23rd and a close-range goal by substitute Armando Sadiku in the 76th.
Albania reached 14 points with the victory, two points more than third-place Denmark, the 1992 European champion which will have to go through the playoffs to try to earn a berth at Euro 2016.
Serbia 1-2 Portugal
Portugal concluded their qualifying campaign with a 2-1 win in Serbia, who finished the game with nine men.
With their place in next summer’s finals already assured, Portugal coach Fernando Santos allowed talisman Cristiano Ronaldo extra time off before returning to club side Real Madrid.
Ronaldo’s former Manchester United team-mate Nani tapped in the rebound from a saved Danny shot to give the Group I winners a fifth-minute lead.
Zoran Tosic equalized an hour later when he turned home Aleksandar Kolarov’s cutback but Serbia were not level for long as Joao Moutinho’s delightful curling shot after 78 minutes restored Portugal’s lead.
Kolarov was sent off for protesting that the goal should not have stood and then in the 81st minute, Chelsea’s Nemanja Matic was also shown a red card for swiping his arm at Andre Andre during an aerial duel.
Greece 4-3 Hungary
Hungary saw their hopes of automatic Euro 2016 qualification ended as Greece finally stirred to claim a remarkable 4-3 victory in Piraeus.
Kostas Mitroglou and Panagiotis Kone struck in the last 11 minutes as the 2004 champions came from behind to win for the first time in their Group F qualifying campaign.
Hungary, who twice led in a pulsating game after two Krisztian Nemeth goals, had needed to win to stand any chance of pipping Romania to second spot but will now play in next month’s play-offs.
Kostas Stafylidis got Greece off to a flying start, scoring their first home goal of the campaign as he turned in a cross from Stelios Kitsiou at close range in the fifth minute.
Daniel Bode volleyed narrowly wide for Hungary but the equalizer came after 26 minutes as Gergo Lovrencsics headed home a cross from Leandro.
Lovrencsics had another shot deflected narrowly over before Hungary went ahead after 55 minutes as Nemeth tapped in at the far post following a corner.
Greece quickly replied as Panagiotis Tachtsidis lashed in a powerful shot just two minutes later.
Nemeth put Hungary back ahead with his second 15 minutes from time after a fine run by Zsolt Kalmar, but again their joy was short-lived.
Mitroglou leveled with a cool finish after being played in by Tachtsidis and substitute Kone snatched a dramatic win as he met a Jose Holebas cross to thump in a powerful header.
Faroe Islands 0-3 Romania
Constantin Budescu struck twice and Alexandru Maxim was also on target as Romania secured their place at Euro 2016 with a 3-0 victory in the Faroe Islands.
Budescu opened the scoring in the fourth minute in rain-soaked Torshavn and added another with a cross-cum-shot on the stroke of half-time.
The Faroes did make life difficult for the visitors but substitute Maxim eased nerves seven minutes from time, sending Romania through as Group F runners-up with an unbeaten record.
Romania had an early scare when Joan Edmundsson went close but were soon ahead.
Gabriel Torje caught out the home defense with a cleverly-taken free-kick and captain Razvan Rat squared the ball for Bodescu to side-foot home.
The Faroes responded well as Edmundsson twice forced Ciprian Tatarusanu to save and Ragnar Nattestad stabbed a glorious chance wide from three yards following a corner.
Romania had further opportunities as Adrian Popa sliced wide after a good run and Torje missed the target.
Their second goal came in first-half injury time but Budescu was intending to cross when he centred from the right. However his dipping delivery flew over Gunnar Nielsen into the top corner.
The Faroes continued to trouble Romania and Tatarusanu had to save after Hallur Hansson went through on goal and Kaj Bartalsstovu shot just wide.
But after Budescu was denied a hat-trick by a fine Nielsen save, Maxim completed the job with a composed finish after playing a one-two with Bogdan Stancu.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.