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Sunday 11 December 2016

Northern Ireland finish top of Group F after draw against Finland

Published 11/10/2015 | 19:26

Craig Cathcart opened the scoring for Northern Ireland in Helsinki
Craig Cathcart opened the scoring for Northern Ireland in Helsinki

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.

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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.

The first scare at the Northern Ireland end came when Brunt miskicked a clearance high into his own area and McNair failed to connect with his intended header.

That left Tim Sparv to take a shot at goal but he screwed his effort wide.

Lafferty failed to connect with an inviting Brunt pass across the six-yard line but Northern Ireland found a way through just after the half-hour.

Brunt's corner was recycled on the right by McNair, who slipped Niall McGinn down the channel.

The Aberdeen winger crossed to the near post and Cathcart, still forward from the set-piece, was in place to flash a header across Lukas Hradecky.

The closest Finland came to a first-half equaliser saw Joel Pohjanpalo steal inside Brunt at left-back only to be denied by Michael McGovern at the near post.

Finland came out brightly after the break, Pohjanpalo finally asking some questions of the Northern Irish defence.

He might have been rewarded with a goal after 50 minutes, Robin Lod and Uronen combining to tee him up as he raced into the area.

Pohjanpalo connected well at speed but the shot kept rising and disappeared on to the running track.

The initial burst of energy from the Finns did not last.

Cathcart's goal mean t the onus was on them to find a foothold in the game and they simply did not have the wherewithal, leaving O'Neill's side seemingly comfortable.

O'Neill went to his bench three times, handing Conor McLaughlin, Shane Ferguson and Josh Magennis the chance to make an impression.

Magennis made a a nuisance of himself up front but it was Finland who managed to raise their game at the last.

Substitute Kasper Hamalainen cushioned a header for Arajuuri to stab past McGovern in the 87th minute, but it barely registered with the 2,200 buoyant Northern Irish fans who responded by toasting their heroes' imminent trip to France.

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