King Kyle Lafferty can rule again in Bucharest Euro 2016 for Northern Ireland
Three games, three goals leading to three wins and three times named man of the match, Kyle Lafferty has been the most influential player in the 2016 European Championship qualifying campaign so far.
Hard to believe, but not even Cristiano Ronaldo, Thomas Muller, Diego Costa, Wayne Rooney or Karim Benzema have made an impact like the Northern Ireland striker.
Right now in this tournament, Kyle is King.
Some going for the 26-year-old from Kesh in County Fermanagh, whose international career was in doubt 14 months ago following a silly red card against Portugal.
He’s always had the ability to make a difference for his country. The big question marks have forever related to his attitude. That has been spot on in the qualifiers and look at the results!
If he continues to produce as he has in the games to date, Northern Ireland will reach the finals in France.
In the victories over Hungary and the Faroe Islands his goals were akin to that of a poacher, a quality not normally associated with the Norwich City forward.
His strike in Athens last month was something else entirely, illustrating his footballing talent and high confidence levels. Just inside the Greek half, he beat his marker with skill before showing strength and speed to race clear and finish in style. It was a spectacular effort.
And his 12th goal in a Northern Ireland shirt.
Before David Healy came along, the Green and White Army would have been throwing parties when one of their own reached that number. If he scores against Romania tonight and joins Colin Clarke and Billy Gillespie on 13, only Healy, on 36, will be ahead of him.
He may never reach the Killyleagh man’s impressive total, but tonight Lafferty can match Healy by becoming only the second Northern Ireland footballer to score in four successive qualifiers.
Even Healy, though, never managed to score in four internationals of any type in a row. Sammy Wilson and Willie Irvine both did it in the 1960s. Lafferty could do the same in Bucharest.
It’s not just Lafferty’s goals that have counted in this campaign, it’s been his overall performances, linking up play, providing space for team-mates and defending when the need arises.
What was also pleasing in Athens was his temperament. Slightly unlucky to be booked early on, there were a few occasions in the second half when in the past he may have dived in needlessly to tackle and picked up another caution leading to a sending off. He stayed on his feet and stayed on the pitch.
For a player sometimes accused of lacking brainpower, it was encouraging to see Lafferty play smart against Greece.
He’ll need to be clever again in Romania and for the remaining fixtures in the group, because knowing his history and the flashpoints in days gone past, defenders will be out to test him mentally and physically.
Tonight, while another win would be magnificent, a point, especially given that Michael O’Neill won’t be able to select his strongest team due to injuries, would be more than acceptable.
It’ll be hard to keep Romania at bay, so Northern Ireland might just need a goal to secure a draw and stay top of the table. That’s where Kyle comes in.
Belfast Telegraph Digital