Northern Ireland’s perfect start to Euro 2016 qualifying came crashing to an end in Romania after Paul Papp ended their bold 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.
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 monstrous 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.
Northern Ireland still sit in second place in the pool, one point behind Romania, with on paper their hardest games out of the way.
“I couldn’t have asked any more in terms of their commitment, their work ethic,” said O’Neill.
“We came up against a really good side. We defended fantastically well, which we had to do. We came within 15 minutes of getting a fantastic result.
“We now have two home games to look forward to. We have nine points from four games, three of them away to the hardest teams in the group, so it’s a fantastic start for us.”