Northern Ireland led the celebrations on Thursday night as both the Green and White army, plus the Republic of Ireland, basked in historic victories during their penultimate 2016 UEFA European Championship qualifiers.
Michael O’Neill’s side defeated Euro 2004 champions Greece 3-1 inside Belfast’s Windsor Park to qualify for next year’s finals in France – in what will be their first-ever taste of the European Championship and their first inclusion in a major tournament for 30 years.
Two goals from skipper and Southampton midfielder Steven Davis, plus a third from stand-in striker Josh Magennis, sent Northern Ireland through, although the Greeks did manage to pull one goal back late on through Christos Aravidis’ best efforts.
After Group F runners-up Romania slipped up during their 1-1 draw with Finland, in which they scored a late equaliser, Northern Ireland will top the standings if they avoid defeat against Finland themselves on Sunday in Helsinki.
Last night’s party atmosphere at Windsor Park capped off a wonderful conclusion to the country’s qualification process, one where they have finally ended the barren run of 14 unsuccessful previous campaigns to qualify for a major tournament on the international stage.
O’Neill’s men went into the interval with a slender one-goal advantage after Davis latched onto Stuart Dallas’ pinpoint low cross from the right-flank, before Kilmarnock striker Magennis, who was making his first competitive start for Northern Ireland, netted his first international goal with a looping header from Oliver Norwood’s corner in the 49th minute.
Premier League ace Davis then handed the hosts a unassailable three-goal cushion when his powerful header from the edge of the penalty area beat Greece goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis all ends up with just over half an hour remaining.
Aravidis’ netted his consolation late on for the visitors; but his mere effort didn’t spoil the wild celebrations at Windsor Park as Northern Ireland will compete in next year’s Euro 2016 – their first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
Manager O’Neill said: “We have to enjoy tonight, we have got a three-point gap now.
“Our objective was to qualify and we’ve done that. It is a lovely position to be in going into the last game.
“We look forward to the draw now, it gives everyone something to look forward to. The preparations for France start now.”
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s neighbours the Republic of Ireland guaranteed themselves at least a qualifying play-off spot for next summer’s Euro 2016 after a stunning 1-0 victory over World Cup champions Germany.
Substitute Shane Long’s excellent finish in the 70th minute inside Dublin’s Aviva Stadium was enough to defeat the world number two nation to leave automatic qualification for the finals in their own hands.
Thursday night’s celebrations, their first win over the Germans in over 21 years, means the Republic will qualify on Sunday if they defeat Poland in Warsaw.
However, Martin O’Neill’s men are now guaranteed at least a play-off place after Scotland became unable to finish in the top three of Group D after suffering a late blow in their own encounter with the White Eagles last night.
Southampton forward Long will take all the plaudits after a long kick forward from fellow substitute Darren Randolph (goalkeeper) landed deep in the opponent’s half, allowing the nimble Irishman to latch onto the bouncing ball before coolly slotting it past a helpless Manuel Neuer with just 20 minutes remaining.
Leading up to this weekend’s final round of fixtures; Joachim Low’s defeated Germany still top the standings on 19 points despite Thursday’s loss, with Ireland and Poland both locked on 18 points, although O’Neill’s men lye third due to their inferior goal difference.
Victory on Sunday will guarantee Ireland an automatic passage into next year’s European finals, whereas a first defeat in eight games would see their fate be decided in the play-off stage.
And finally; Scotland suffered heartbreak with the last kick of the ball during their agonising 2-2 draw with Group D opponents Poland, a result that means Gordon Strachan’s men can no longer qualify for Euro 2016.
The in-form Robert Lewandowski, who now has 14 goals in his last five competitive games for club and country, dealt the excruciating blow in the third minute of stoppage-time inside Glasgow’s Hampden Park by scrambling the ball home from a free-kick to salvage a last-gasp crucial point for the visitors.
The Bayern Munich hitman opened the scoring inside just three minutes after expertly finishing past Cardiff City shot stopper David Marshall at his near post, but exquisite finishes from AFC Bournemouth’s Matt Ritchie and Sunderland’s Steven Fletcher inspired an incredible comeback from the Scots to take a narrow advantage going into the final half an hour.
The draw could have been all-important if the Republic of Ireland had lost at home to Germany in Thursday night’s other tantalising tie; but O’Neill’s side conquered the World Cup champions to consign Scotland to a guaranteed fourth or fifth-place finish in Group D.
On Sunday; manager Strachan will lead his team out in Gibraltar for their final Euro 2016 qualifier with nothing to play for, although the 58-year-old will have to decide upon his future as national team coach having failed to lead his country to a first European Championships since 1996.
“The players are the priority at the moment,” Strachan said after the crushing defeat.
“To talk about me is all wrong. I will leave that to other people.
“I have people in this building hurting and I need to look after them.”
Elsewhere, Hungary came from behind in Northern Ireland’s group to defeat Faroe Islands 2-1 – a result which sees them guarantee at least a play-off spot; Georgia beat Gibraltar 4-0 in a battle of the bottom two in Scotland and Republic of Ireland’s group, and, In Group I, Portugal sealed qualification with a 1-0 victory over Denmark, whist Albania’s hopes were dented by a 2-0 defeat at home to Serbia.
England, who have already sealed their passage into next year’s tournament after topping Group E with eight wins from eight, host fourth-placed Estonia at Wembley Stadium on Friday night in their penultimate qualifier.
Meanwhile, fellow home nation Wales, who need just a point from their two remaining Euro 2016 qualifiers, visit Group B opponents Bosnia-Herzegovina at the Stadion Bilino Polje on Saturday night.