Jamie Ward gets Northern Ireland off to a Moscow flyerRoad to Russia opens up after early strike rattles Norwegians and strengthens Northern Ireland's grip on a World Cup play-off place
One of the fastest ever goals at Windsor Park has Northern Ireland half way to Russia.
Jamie Ward's sublime second-minute strike and a third goal in three home starts for Conor Washington condemned Norway - who hadn't lost to Northern Ireland in 42 years - to defeat in Belfast last night and propelled Michael O'Neill's men on to 10 points in Group C.
With Germany beating Azerbaijan 4-1, Northern Ireland, who are unbeaten in eight competitive games at the famous south Belfast venue, have consolidated second place in the group and, at the half way stage of the campaign, are in command of the all-important play-off spot behind Joachim Low's world champions. Manager Michael O'Neill told his players prior to last night's victory that if they won and reached double figures, they could start dreaming about reaching the 2018 World Cup finals.
Well boys, dare to dream, because Russia will soon come into sight as we start the second half of qualifying.
It took a brilliant and clinical first-half performance and a gutsy and a strong defensive display in the second half to see off Lars Lagerback's Norwegians in his first game in charge.
Usually, one or two players are stand-out performers for Northern Ireland in victory, but last night there were exceptional performances all over the park.
With Josh Magennis ruled out through a hamstring injury, QPR's in-form striker Washington started up front ahead of Kyle Lafferty, while Craig Cathcart returned to the side for the first time since defeat to Wales in the Euro 2016 finals last June. He partnered Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley in a back three, with Conor McLaughlin and Stuart Dallas acting as wing backs.
Chris Brunt was selected in midfield alongside skipper Steven Davis with Ollie Norwood playing the holding role just behind.
Lagerback made six changes from the Norway side that lost 2-1 to the Czech Republic last November, with four of those players, due to either retirement, suspension or injury, not even in Belfast.
Lagerback selected four of his English-based players, with former Celtic midfielder Stefan Johansen captain in the middle of the park, alongside Havard Nordtveit from West Ham, Hull City's Omar Elabdellaoui at right back and Bournemouth's red hot striker Joshua King up front.
Prior to kick off, those in attendance at Windsor Park paid their respects to Derry City captain Ryan McBride, who died last week, with a minute's applause.
Norway pushed forward straight away from kick off and threatened with a long throw from Nordtveit, but it was Northern Ireland who scored after just 90 seconds.
After a marauding run down the right from Dallas, the Leeds winger quickly fed Brunt and, in his advanced role, he played a neat ball into Ward, deep in Norway's 18-yard box. The Nottingham Forest player tried to turn to his right but miscontrolled - a blessing in disguise as he circled round with a quick turn in the opposite direction to leave Norwegian defender Even Hovland flat footed, then drilled the ball with pinpoint accuracy into the bottom corner of the net.
It was Ward's fourth strike for Northern Ireland and the quickest goal at Windsor since Ivan Sproule scored against Estonia in 2006.
There was some injury concern for the hosts on nine minutes when McAuley fell badly after being fouled by Alexander Soderland and received treatment on his back for a period of time, but he rejoined the action.
Norway were starting to come into the game more, enjoying plenty of possession, but it took until the 25th minute before King had their first shot on target.
Then, with confusion in the Northern Ireland defence and McLaughlin failing to clear with a header, Soderland picked up the pieces and struck a fantastic shot on the half volley which rebounded off the bar.
It was a warning to O'Neill's men that, despite struggling in this qualifying group, Norway could be a serious threat.
They obviously heeded it because McLaughlin, at his best going forward, played a quick ball to Davis in space and the Southampton magician played a delightful pass which was latched on to by the quick-footed Washington. With Hovland playing him onside, the QPR man, full of confidence after scoring seven goals for his club in the Championship, slotted the ball through the legs of the keeper.
Cue delirium inside Windsor and chants of 'We're going to win the group'.
With frustration creeping into a physical Norway team, there were a few meaty challenges and Dallas was booked for a lunge at Mohamed Elyounoussi on the stroke of half time.
Nortveid struck the resulting free kick too early for the referee's liking, straight into the arms of McGovern and then picked up a yellow card for his trouble. The re-taken free kick wasn't much better.
Davis, who had been majestic in midfield throughout the first half, was once again bringing fear to the inexperienced Norway back line with his defence-splitting balls, simple and slick passes while his boots were seemingly magnetic to the ball in terms of possession. A joy to watch.
But Norwood, in the holding role, and Brunt, alongside Davis, were making sure they delivered significant contributions.
In an effort to change the momentum, Lagerback (left) made his first substitution of the night bringing on Mats Moller Daehli for the ineffective Tarik Elyounoussi.
Ten minutes later Hull City's Adama Diomande replaced Soderlund.
Norway, with Northern Ireland guilty of giving them the ball back too easily, enjoyed plenty of possession but the green rearguard of Cathcart, McAuley and Evans were incredibly resolute.
So, while there was plenty of action going on in front of McGovern during the opening 20 minutes of the second half, he wasn't really troubled. Diomande did have a free header on goal, but the Norwich City stopper was alert and then, after Norway's skipper Johansen was taken off for Sander Berge, McGovern dived down low to save a rasping free kick from Nordtveit on 77 minutes.
Goalscorer Ward received rapturous applause with 10 minutes to go when he was replaced by Niall McGinn and then Windsor hero Kyle Lafferty came on for the last six minutes for Washington, while O'Neill gave Matthew Lund his competitive debut with two minutes remaining, as he took the place of Dallas.
It was job done and it means Northern Ireland have registered three clean sheets in four games in this campaign - and, in three meetings with Lagerback, who was in charge of Sweden during the Euro 2008 qualifiers, we remain unbeaten.
Northern Ireland can prepare for Azerbaijan in June safe in the knowledge that they have basically eliminated Norway in the race for second place and victory in Baku should leave a shoot-out between O'Neill's men and the Czech Republic.