Northern Ireland secured top spot in Group F as they earned a 1-1 draw against Finland in their final match of Euro 2016 qualifying on Sunday.
Craig Cathcart looked to have sealed all three points for Michael O’Neill’s men in Helsinki with his first international goal, but Paulus Arajuuri snatched a point for Finland late on.
Having booked their place at next year’s finals with a 3-1 win over Greece on Thursday, Northern Ireland were able to relax in the Finnish capital and eventually they took the lead as Cathcart nodded home at the front post in the 31st minute.
Joel Pohjanpalo was Finland’s most threatening option in attack but the Fortuna Dusseldorf striker failed to convert the few chances that came his way.
Northern Ireland’s resilience – which has seen them only concede eight goals in their 10 matches – was again in evidence as Finland were comfortably kept at arm’s length, while in attack O’Neill’s side offered little after the break.
They were unable to record a clean sheet, though, as Arajuuri earned a share of the spoils with a low finish three minutes from time, but the point was still enough to see Northern Ireland finish as group winners ahead of Romania, who qualified courtesy of a 3-0 win over Faroe Islands.
The visitors had the better of the early chances in a lacklustre start with winger Stuart Dallas guilty of wasting two glorious opportunities inside the opening 10 minutes.
His clearest opening came after a defensive error presented him with the ball on the edge of the penalty area, but the Leeds United winger scuffed his low shot straight at Lukas Hradecky.
Finland enjoyed spells of possession but struggled to create anything of note until the 28th minute when captain Tim Sparv latched onto a Pohjanpalo knock down, but he dragged his shot wide from 18 yards.
Sparv’s miss was punished just after the half-hour as the hosts failed to clear a corner, the loose ball dropped to Niall McGinn and his precise delivery was glanced home by Cathcart.
Northern Ireland then needed Michael McGovern to be alert in order to maintain their advantage, the goalkeeper making a string of saves – including one at point blank range from Pohjanpalo – to keep Finland at bay.
Pohjanpalo continued to look dangerous after the break but he was unable to keep an early volley down from Jere Uronen’s left-wing cross.
Finland provided a much greater attacking threat as Northern Ireland sat on their lead, but the hosts were restricted to long-range efforts that McGovern was able to gather easily.
The hosts continued to push for a leveller and eventually found a way through as substitute Kasper Hamalainen found Arajuuri, and the defender fired low under McGovern.
- Soccer News Like
- Be the first of your friends!