Belfast Telegraph

Brunt is on fire as Northern Ireland put Azerbaijan to the sword

N Ireland 4 Azerbaijan 0

By Paul Ferguson

Wounded warrior Chris Brunt completed a dream international comeback as dominant Northern Ireland moved into second place in Group C with a comprehensive victory over Azerbaijan at Windsor Park last night.

Having missed the Euro 2016 finals through injury, Brunt produced a man-of-the-match display at left back. Despite it being over a year since he last pulled on a green shirt, the West Brom star thwarted Azerbaijan in defence and was a constant threat in attack - contributing to two of Northern Ireland's goals.

Even a nasty clash of heads in the first half couldn't stop the 31-year-old enjoying his return to a Northern Ireland jersey.

It was thought Brunt may have scored his first international goal in seven years last night but Northern Ireland's fourth looked to have been touched home by skipper Steven Davis.

Kyle Lafferty netted his fourth goal in his last three games at Windsor Park to set Northern Ireland on their way before Gareth McAuley made sure it was 2-0 going into the half time interval and then right back Conor McLaughlin scored his first ever international goal with sublime header.

With Norway losing in Baku and Azerbaijan drawing with the Czech Republic in Prague, it was believed last night's game would be tense and tough. But on a miserable night in south Belfast, with the rain relentless at times, Northern Ireland delivered a committed, determined and stylish performance to end the competitive games of 2016 on an almighty high.

Brunt was drafted straight back in to Martin O'Neill's team at left back with Shane Ferguson moved further forward in the continued absence of Stuart Dallas.

McLaughlin returned at right back with Josh Magennis dropping back into Jamie Ward's role on the right of midfielder and Lafferty up front on his own.

Brunt's first contribution in a Northern Ireland shirt since the final Euro qualifier against Finland in Helsinki, was to stop a clear goalscoring opportunity for Azerbaijan inside one minute. He managed to glance the ball away for a corner with Afran Ismayilov ready to pounce behind him

However that was really all Azerbaijan had to offer attacking wise in the first half.

From then on it was all Northern Ireland, with Magennis performing extremely well in his new role and the stand-out player in the first half.

On 12 minutes, Jonny Evans found McLaughlin on the right flank, he used terrific skill to control the ball and then cut inside. The Fleetwood man played a delightful cross to the back post, but Ferguson could only find the side netting with his shot.

There was a worrying four-minute stoppage on 14 minutes when Brunt, having advanced into the six yard box, nodded the ball into the arms of goalkeeper Kamran Agayev, but in doing so he clashed heads with Maksim Medvedev. Both players were bandaged up on the pitch and able to play on.

Magennis was enjoying his best spell in a green shirt and on 25 minutes, after dropping his shoulder to power past defender Arif Dashdemirov, he blasted a ferocious shot at goal that needed to be beaten out by Agayev. Lafferty failed to control the rebound but two minutes later he had found the back of the net.

The Kesh lad scored his 20th international goal in 58 appearances when, after a flick on by Evans from a Magennis long throw, he showed great intuition, awareness and brilliant finishing to fire past Agayev. It was the first goal Azerbaijan have conceded in this qualifying campaign.

With Northern Ireland attacking at will down the right flank due to Magennis and McLaughlin linking up well, Azerbaijan's Emin Makhmudov thought he would bring an end to this quick movement with a crunching late tackle on McLaughlin. He received a yellow card from his misdemeanour but he was doubly punished seconds later as Northern Ireland scored their second goal of the night - and it came from a West Brom double act.

Five minutes before the interval, Brunt, from the right, curled an inch-perfect free kick to the back post and his Baggies club-mate McAuley was there to power home a trademark header, rippling the net in the process.

At the start of the second half, Azerbaijan's famous coach, Robert Prosinecki, made a change, bringing on Deniz Yilmaz for ineffective striker Ramil Sheydaev.

Yilmaz nearly made a big impression after just five minutes on the pitch. Evans misjudged the pace of the ball and the sub latched on to it, but Michael McGovern raced out to smother his effort and send the ball out for a corner.

Azerbaijan showed much more attacking threat in the second half, however even when Arif Dashdemirov curled an effort over the bar on the hour mark, it never really threatened McGovern's goal and Evans and McAuley stood firm.

There was a huge cheer on 61 minutes from the Windsor Park faithful as Will Grigg replaced Lafferty and the fans immediately started singing his famous 'on fire' song.

But it was the Northern Ireland right back McLaughlin who scored his first-ever international goal and his country's third. From a brilliantly worked Oliver Norwood corner, McLaughlin raced forward and directed his header in at the near post

Prosinecki made a couple of changes in an attempt to inject new life into Azerbaijan but eight minutes from the end Davis, after Brunt's crisp, low shot, had completed the scoring and a resounding victory.

Northern Ireland sit proudly in second place in Group C - exactly where they want to be come the end of the qualifying campaign.

For finishing runners-up to Germany should guarantee a play-off spot for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Yet another incredible story for Northern Ireland in 2016.

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