Weakened Northern Ireland look to maintain unbeaten record in Romania

Team travels to Bucharest without captain Steven Davis as squad is stretched to the limit

Euro 2016, Group F – Romania v Northern Ireland, Bucharest, 7.45pm: As if being manager of Northern Ireland were not a stern enough test of a coach's acumen and resourcefulness, Michael O'Neill and his squad have arrived in Bucharest for tonight's qualifier against Romania without captain Steven Davis.

Davis (29) is enjoying a bright role in Southampton’s surprising season and is a key figure for O’Neill as well as Ronald Koeman.

Davis's absence will weaken the North at a time when Jonny Evans remains unavailable and the only other squad member playing consistently in the Premier League is West Brom's Chris Brunt.

Brunt, however, has played only twice for O’Neill over the past year. In Gareth McAuley and Chris Baird, O’Neill has two more West Brom players but McAuley (34) is yet to kick a ball in the Premier League this season, while Baird (32) has had just 13 minutes of league action.

But both Baird and McAuley have started the three Northern Ireland games – three victories – that have taken O’Neill’s side to the top of Group F. It has made Northern Ireland the Southampton of these European qualifiers.

Having been drawn from pot five, and not been to a major finals since 1986, the expectation was that the Irish were there to make up the numbers.

Northern Ireland finished above only Luxembourg in World Cup qualifying and in 18 matches prior to this campaign O'Neill had tasted victory just once – over Fabio Capello's Russia at Windsor Park.

Coming together

But that was a good win and the former Shamrock Rovers manager has felt his team have been undeserving of the overall record. He notes that his players led Portugal twice, only to concede late to draw away in Oporto and then for Cristiano Ronaldo to score a 15-minute hat-trick in Belfast.

O’Neill felt his team were coming together and the 2-1 win in Hungary in the opening group game – when the hosts took the lead on 75 minutes – was the moment when previous hard work turned into triumph, rather than another near miss. Kyle Lafferty scored an 88th minute winner.

“The 1/18 figure didn’t reflect what we were, and were becoming,” O’Neill says.

“My biggest concern was if I lost the belief of the players, and we’ve really worked on trying to create a spirit, discipline. But you need results and we got one in Hungary. They went ahead with 15 minutes left, three minutes after we lost McAuley. But there was something about our team that night, they weren’t going to be beaten.”

These are moments managers treasure and another came when Greece were beaten in Piraeus. Jamie Ward, of Derby County, scored the opener and Lafferty the second.

Ward is another injured absentee this time. Newcastle United reserve Shane Ferguson is a third starter from Greece out injured and this against a Romania team who have, like the North, already won twice away from home.

Romania have just reappointed – for the third time – Anghel Iordanescu as manager. In his home return, Romania will be confident of overcoming depleted visitors.

It says much about O’Neill’s situation that on Wednesday he called up players from Rochdale and Oldham Athletic – Matty Lund and Carl Winchester – and it is at times like this when O’Neill feels the loss of northern, small ‘n’, Irish players most.

O'Neill attended the recent FAI Cup final to see Derry City and says: "Derry is still an area where we can potentially lose players. It's important for them to know that they are important to us. We've lost Darron Gibson, James McClean, Eunan O'Kane – Eunan would be in my squad.

“I want the Derry boys to realise they’re very much part of what we want to do. It’s a difficult issue. We’re fighting against the tide a bit.

Perception

“When I took the job I said I wanted the perception of the Northern Ireland side to change. There was a perception that it wasn’t inclusive and I wanted to say that in no way would it be like that under me.

“We had the situation with Shane Ferguson, who’s now playing for us, and I wish I’d had the chance to get to the likes of James McClean earlier. Or Eunan O’Kane.”

The one unforeseen boost for O’Neill has been the rise of Paddy McNair. The 19-year-old who made his Manchester United debut at the end of September is expected to be given his first cap seven weeks later.

Given the injuries, a draw tonight would be an achievement, and after Romania, four of Northern Ireland’s next six qualifiers are at home.