Draw sees other boys in green top table

Winning group for first time since 1958 is icing on cake for Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland’s Steven Davis celebrates after his side’s one-all draw with Finland last night propelled them to the top of their European Championship group. Photograph: William Cherry/Presseye/Inpho

Northern Ireland’s Steven Davis celebrates after his side’s one-all draw with Finland last night propelled them to the top of their European Championship group. Photograph: William Cherry/Presseye/Inpho

 

The job was already done but Northern Ireland ended a magnificent qualifying campaign with one final feat by winning their group courtesy of a point in Finland. Uefa expanded the European Championship to help its smaller members, yet Michael O’Neill’s accomplished team needed no assistance to reach France.

There was a late setback in Helsinki as Paulus Arajuuri’s 87th-minute equaliser denied Northern Ireland a seventh win in 10 matches, but that was a fleeting disappointment.

Craig Cathcart’s first-half header reflected a professional response after the euphoria of sealing qualification against Greece on Thursday and keeping second-place Romania at bay was ultimately all that mattered.

Northern Ireland had won a group for the first time since qualifying for the 1958 World Cup and with three times as many points as in O’Neill’s first campaign in charge, the miserable 2014 World Cup qualifying episode that yielded one win plus defeats against Luxembourg and Azerbaijan. How far they have come.

“I’m disappointed not to have won the game, but it is fantastic to win the group,” the Northern Ireland manager said. “I didn’t think we were going to lose a goal at the end but the players were very tired. It was always going to be difficult after the effort of Thursday night but we have lost only one game in Romania when we were severely weakened by injuries and it is lovely to be going to France as group winners . . . I believe we have been the best and most effective team in the group.”

There is no dispute.

It was party time for over 2,000 supporters, many dressed in green berets and French tricolours in celebration of a first European Championship appearance and all producing a constant noise at the last game to be held at the Olympiastadion.

The breakthrough arrived after an opening half hour controlled by O’Neill’s side. Niall McGinn picked out Cathcart arriving at the near post and the Watford defender steered a glancing header home.

As in the previous away game against Faroe Islands, Northern Ireland’s authority waned after taking a merited lead. Finland’s threat was contained relatively comfortably thereafter but the visitors’ defence was breached late on.

Substitute Teemu Pukki sent a deep cross into Kasper Hamalainen, he headed into Arajuuri’s path inside the area and the big centre-half controlled well before sweeping his finish past McGovern.

Northern Ireland players reacted furiously to the equaliser. They had no cause to berate themselves whatsoever and every reason to wallow in the celebrations that followed. Guardian Service

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