Romania 2 Northern Ireland 0
Northern Ireland's perfect start to Euro 2016 qualifying came crashing down in Romania after Paul Papp ended their brave resistance with a second-half brace.
Despite taking maximum points from their first three matches, including away wins in Hungary and Greece, Michael O'Neill's men were under siege for the entirety of the encounter.
Yet their backs-to-the-wall defence looked as though it would yield a vital draw until right-back Papp struck in the 74th and 79th minutes to seal a 2-0 win for the new Group F leaders. The result was well deserved for the hosts, who also hit the crossbar, missed a sitter from point-blank range and had a convincing penalty appeal turned down, but Northern Ireland will still feel disappointed.
They put in a mammoth defensive effort at the Arena Nationala, led by captain for the night Gareth McAuley and assisted by tireless shifts from Aaron Hughes, Chris Brunt and Oliver Norwood.
Kyle Lafferty, having scored in his previous three matches, also ran himself to a standstill in an isolated forward role. The first half was a story of relentless, yet ultimately fruitless, one-way traffic.
From kick-off Romania punted the ball towards left-back Ryan McGivern, the first in a series of attacks aimed down the flanks. McGivern and right-back Conor McLaughlin both ply their trade in League One, with Port Vale and Fleetwood respectively, and there was a concerted attempt to expose them.
There were few breaks for the back line either, with Lafferty alone up front and unable to hold up possession for any length of time. It still took 15 minutes for Romania to test Roy Carroll, out-of-favour Tottenham defender Vlad Chiriches producing a nimble bicycle kick that the Notts County stopper gathered at the second attempt.
The visitors' first chance followed almost immediately, Lafferty burrowing into the box before Brunt slid a low shot just wide of the far post. Romania went again and should have scored when Alexandru Chipciu spurned a glorious double chance in the 17th minute.
He looked certain to convert a perfect cross from six yards but his crisp volley rebounded off the underside of the crossbar.
The ball then bounced over a disorientated Carroll and fell invitingly for a second attempt, but this time Chipciu headed gently back to the grateful gokeeper.
Hughes and McAuley were fighting fires in the centre, clearing, intercepting and heading away a raft of crosses and through balls, while Niall McGinn was struggling to cover McLaughlin on the right.
Lucian Sanmartean has been fancifully likened to the great Gheorghe Hagi but a wonderful run in the 32nd minute only improved the 34-year-old's credentials.
Collecting the ball just inside the opposition half he charged past Corry Evans and made his way to the edge of the area where he weaved his way past McAuley and McLaughlin before cutting the ball across goal for Bogdan Stancu to slot home. But the striker lost his footing at the crucial moment, fluffing his connection completely from five yards and allowing Chris Baird to mop up.
Goal threat at the other end was virtually non-existent but the willing Lafferty did serve a warning just before the break, muscling through on the left and working Ciprian Tatarusanu at his near post.
Stancu paid the price for his earlier miss, hooked at half-time in favour of Claudiu Keseru.
Keseru had been on the field seven minutes when his measured pass put the overlapping Razvan Rat one on one with Carroll. He attempted a delicate chipped finish but Carroll guessed right, standing tall and smothering the shot with his chest.
Sanmartaen should have won a penalty just after the hour, dribbling into the area again and tumbling to the floor after McGivern left his foot out. But the referee was unimpressed or unsighted and play moved on.
O'Neill attempted to shore things up by replacing McGinn with the defensively minded Sammy Clingan, but the resistance finally came to an end 16 minutes from time.
Rat played provider, whipping in an awkward cross from left wing that McAuley could only fling a trailing leg at. The ball landed nicely for Papp and he left Carroll no chance from 10 yards. That knocked the stuffing from Northern Ireland and it was no surprise to see a second goal five minutes later, Papp again arriving in the right place to nod home Sanmartaen’s cross at the far post.
There was no coming back now, with Billy McKay’s late arrival as a second striker merely window dressing.