Northern Ireland 1 Hungary 1
Kyle Lafferty struck a stoppage-time equaliser as 10-man Northern Ireland salvaged a point against Hungary to keep their Euro 2016 dreams very much on course.
Victory on the 10th anniversary of their famous win over England would have secured Michael O’Neill’s men a place in France next summer, but the night looked set to end in acrimony as Michael McGovern’s goalkeeping error gifted Richard Guzmics the opener in the 74th minute.
Chris Baird was sent off with eight minutes left, having committed a pair of fouls within seconds, but Lafferty’s seventh strike of the campaign – a close-range blast following up Niall McGinn’s effort – ensured a 1-1 draw.
With Romania drawing against Greece, O’Neill’s men remain top of Group F - though Lafferty will miss the potentially decisive clash with the Greeks next month having picked up a second booking.
It was a frenetic, febrile finish in Belfast but once again showed Northern Ireland’s desire to reach a first major tournament in 30 years is alive and kicking.
Lafferty celebrated his close-range effort with gusto, charging down the flank and leaping in joy, but even he cannot have been as pleased as McGovern, whose handling error looked to have settled matters.
Having been retained ahead of long-standing number one Roy Carroll, it was a dreadful moment for the Hamilton stopper.
Kyle Lafferty has now scored 7 goals in Euro 2016 qualifying, only R.Lewandowski (10) and T.Müller (8) have more. pic.twitter.com/5Uj9eq8QLr— Squawka Football (@Squawka) September 7, 2015
The game started at a frenetic pace, with Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis tearing into a thunderous tackle just a minute into proceedings and a scattering of rushed passes hurting the flow.
Hungarian dangerman Balazs Dzsudzsak took an early chance to run at the home defence but screwed wide as the green shirts sat off him.
It was his only threatening moment of the first half, a minor feather in the cap of Chris Brunt, who is still not a natural left-back.
Lafferty and Guzmics traded bookings, with the Northern Irishman also targeted by a handful of red shirts.
One free-kick earned Oliver Norwood the chance to put his laces behind a swirling 30-yarder, but Gabor Kiraly managed a tumbling low save.
Northern Ireland continued to command the territory, Baird and Davis recycling possession intelligently in midfield but there was no breakthrough before the half-time whistle.
The second half was five minutes old when Lafferty had a sniff of goal.
Gareth McAuley nodded a free-kick into his team-mate’s path but Lafferty’s outstretched boot failed to make meaningful contact.
Michael O’Neill sacrificed Corry Evans’ defensive qualities in the 56th minute, McGinn summoned from the bench having scored as a substitute when the sides met in Budapest.
It was an aggressive move but already the tempo had started to dip, with tired legs evident in both line-ups.
Zsolt Kalmar was a notable exception, gaining in effectiveness as the game continued.
Conor McLaughlin joined Lafferty in earning a one-game ban when he was booked for a push on Kalmar, whose free-kick was creeping under the bar until McGovern pushed it over.
The 31-year-old’s next involvement ended in tears as he came to claim a regulation catch from Dzsudzsak’s hanging free-kick.
Inexplicably he let the ball slide through his gloves, leaving a disbelieving Guzmics a one-yard finish.
Worse was to come when Baird hacked down Kalmar, having committed an off-the-ball foul seconds earlier.
He was booked for both and, after a lengthy row with the referee, dismissed.
The five minutes of injury-time that resulted from that fracas ended up costing Hungary victory.
With just about their final chance of the evening, a hard-won corner on the right, Davis heaved one last delivery into the box.
The ball fell to McGinn, whose snap-shot was well stopped by Kiraly.
But that man Lafferty, unable to get a game at Norwich, unable to stop scoring international goals, belted home first time to grab a critical point.