Belfast Telegraph

Brilliant Boyce is back with a bang and now has big role to play in Baku

N Ireland 1 New Zealand 0

By Paul Ferguson

It took only six minutes for Liam Boyce to pass his Northern Ireland audition last night.

The former Cliftonville hitman enjoyed many special moments at Windsor Park torturing the Linfield defence, scoring some sublime goals during his time in the Irish League.

But those Windsor memories have been completely overshadowed by Boyce's first international goal against New Zealand, which decided this friendly clash last night, and confirmed his place in Michael O'Neill's starting line-up against Azerbaijan in Baku next Saturday night.

Scotland's top striker will now be Northern Ireland's main man on the big World Cup qualifying stage.

Manager Michael O'Neill was hoping for a response from the Ross County forward, with Jamie Ward and Conor Washington out for various reasons, and the 26 year-old's all-round performance, even against New Zealand, will be a major positive as he takes his squad to a week-long training camp in Turkey today.

With skipper Steven Davis given a first half rest on the bench ahead of next week's crucial World Cup qualifier, West Brom defender Jonny Evans captained Northern Ireland for the first time since a friendly against Scotland in 2015 at Hampden Park.

The 29 year-old played alongside Aaron Hughes, who was winning his 105th cap, while Burton Albion full back Tom Flanagan was given the nod to make his first international appearance and joined Hughes and Evans in a back three.

Flanagan's new club-mate Matthew Lund made it a Burton double in the team as he joined the recently Premier League promoted Ollie Norwood in midfield.

Boyce, scorer of 24 goals in Scotland last season, was partnered by Charlton's Josh Magennis, leaving Windsor Park favourite Kyle Lafferty on the bench and this looks to be the starting strikeforce against Azerbaijan.

New Zealand's English-born manager Anthony Hudson opted for a 3-5-2 formation with Leeds United's star striker Chris Wood leading their line.

Northern Ireland were pressed back in the opening exchanges but they soon came off the ropes and in their first attack with authority Boyce proved why he is considered such a lethal predator in Scotland, even by the Celtic defence.

On the break, Magennis played a neat ball through midfield to Boyce who showed a neat turn of pace to force his way towards the New Zealand box, he then bamboozled defender Tommy Smith with a delightful side-step and cut back to drill the ball low with his left foot past a flat-footed Stefan Marinovic.

Minutes later Boyce very nearly returned the compliment to Magennis, playing the Charlton man into space with the goal in sight, but his effort was straight at Marinovic.

Evans, as usual, was marshalling the defence expertly, looking so composed and while Hughes read the game so well, Flanagan really seemed to grow in confidence as the game wore on. New Zealand were attempting to give Wood a sight of goal but the Northern Ireland defence were standing firm.

While it may have been a friendly encounter there were a number of crunching tackles and over zealous challenges.

Magennis appeared to be elbowed by Tom Doyle on the half hour mark and then minutes later it seemed retribution was forthcoming from Magennis' team-mates, as in an aerial challenge, Doyle was caught and needed medical attention as blood trickled down his face.

But once patched up, that didn't stop New Zealand's left midfielder being in the thick of the action and Norwood was fortunate to receive only a stern talking to from the ref after a dangerous late challenge, when a booking seemed the minimum course of action.

Conor McLaughlin, who really enjoyed his attacking freedom down the right flank, had the ball in the net 10 minutes before half time with a blistering drive from just inside the box but Luxembourg referee Laurent Kopriwa had already blown his whistle for an infringement by Boyce.

At half time O'Neill summoned Lafferty, Davis and Shane Ferguson from the bench to replace Boyce, Lund and Chris Brunt while the All Whites made one change with Bill Tuiloma coming on for Clayton Lewis.

Northern Ireland were straight away put under pressure with Flanaghan forced to make a great block from Ryan Thomas and then Doyle hit a blistering shot just wide of goal.

Lafferty just failed to direct the ball goalwards following a sublime cross by Magennis.

Norwood was starting to look a lot more comfortable on the ball and Magennis, determined to win the shirt alongside Boyce in Baku, was putting in a real spirited display.

Substitute Kosta Barbarouses came closest to an equaliser on 71 minutes when he raced into the box and from an acute angle curled the ball past Michael McGovern, however the post came to Northern Ireland's aid.

St Johnstone midfielder Paul Paton won his fourth international cap as Stuart Dallas made way.

Accrington Stanley's Newry-born Shay McCartan was given his senior international debut taking over from the exhausted Magennis and veteran Linfield keeper Roy Carroll came on for his 45th cap.

Within seconds McCartan attempted to power towards goal only to be upended just outside the box. At Accrington, McCartan is a free kick specialist but his effort hit the top of the wall.

Norwood was also looking to strike the free kick but he had to make do with a stinging shot just before the full time whistle which very nearly opened his international account.

But it mattered little - Northern Ireland had the win, Boyce impressed on his audition and confidence is high with Azerbaijan just a week away.

And the good news for O'Neill is that Gareth McAuley, who missed last night's game, will be on the plane to Turkey.

Northern Ireland: McGovern (Carroll 83), Conor McLaughlin, Hughes, Flanagan, Evans, Norwood, Brunt (Daniel Lafferty 48), Lund (Kyle Lafferty 48),Dallas (Paton 74), Magennis (McCartan 83),Boyce (Davis 48). Subs not used: Thompson, McGinn, Ferguson, Mannus.

New Zealand: Marinovic, Boxall, Colvey (Barbarouses 63), Doyle (Wynne 72), Durante, Smith, Lewis (Tuiloma 46), McGlinchey, Rojas (Patterson 63),Thomas (Smeltz 79),Wood. Subs not used: Moss, Brotherton, Tzimopoulos, Dane Ingham, Rufer, Roux, Williams.

What we know now

Jonny Evans may have earned the man of the match award but his class is hardly breaking news. Liam Boyce, however, is maturing into a special talent and hopefully his first international goal is just the beginning of a golden period with Northern Ireland. With the disappointment of missing out on the Euro 2016 finals still in the back of his mind, the Ross County striker is hungry to show his quality and his sublime first half finish and impressive performance seems to have earned him a starting role in Azerbaijan next Saturday. This was a comfortable workout for the hosts but a perfect night for Boyce who is playing with a swagger. Boss Michael O’Neill will be relieved, given his shortage of available forwards, that the former Cliftonville hero is playing with a smile on his face. Tom Flanagan can also hold his head high, along with Matthew Lund, but Boyce was the big winner on the night.

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