O'Neill's heroes are Laffing and singing in the rain
Michael O'Neill hailed a stunning performance from his Northern Ireland side after a 4-0 thrashing of Azerbaijan catapulted his boys into second place in World Cup qualifying Group C.
Chris Brunt, making his first Northern Ireland appearance since a serious knee injury ended his Euro 2016 finals dream, defied a head injury to claim his first international goal even though his strike deflected off Steven Davis on the way in.
Kyle Lafferty, Gareth McAuley and Conor McLaughlin's debut Northern Ireland goal had inflicted earlier damage at Windsor Park.
"It was a good night, the players are very well drilled to their credit but they don't get bored with the repetition, that's key to good players, they embrace it," said O'Neill.
"We couldn't have asked for anything more on the night."
Northern Ireland are now second on goal difference, five points behind group leaders Germany.
Lafferty fired home the opener in the 27th minute and Gareth McAuley headed in from a Brunt free-kick to make it 2-0 before half-time.
Conor McLaughlin headed his first international goal before Brunt’s shot was touched by Davis on its way into the net.
Northern Ireland showed their strength at dead-ball situations with the first three goals originating from a long throw, free-kick and corner.
“We’d emphasised that it wouldn’t be as straightforward as San Marino, we had too much respect for Azerbaijan,” O’Neill said. “But we knew if we got forward in the right areas and crossed the ball we could cause them problems and that was the case, whether it was from open play or set-pieces.”
O’Neill also hailed the returningBrunt, back in the starting side for the first time in 13 months, and an impressive display earned him the man of the match prize.
He was in the wars again early on here having received a gash to the head early on, but after being bandaged up and receiving two doses of treatment, it was Brunt’s left foot that played a part in half of the goals.
“We couldn’t replace Chris in France,” O’Neill added. “We had to change our system in many ways and start with three in the back. It was probably driven by Chris’ injury because we don’t have a like-for-like replacement of his quality. We’re delighted he’s back and that he scored, and when you see the reaction of the crowd, he’s a very important player for us.”
O’Neill’s team will now enter the new year ahead of Azerbaijan, Czech Republic and Norway, with the last due to visit Belfast in March.
“The fifth game is always crucial. Once you get to 10 points you’re in touching distance to get enough points to possibly get there, that’s what we have to aim to do,” O’Neill added.
“We’ve been very good at home, not only in this campaign but in the previous campaign, and the fact the next game is here is a bonus as well.”
Azerbaijan had not conceded in their previous three games but they were blown away by a nation that they had taken four points off in the previous World Cup qualification process.
“I think we are a good team, that’s hard to say after we’ve been beaten 4-0 but I still think we have a lot of talent,” said their manager Robert Prosinecki.
“We had two chances to score and didn’t take them. We certainly weren’t over-run but Northern Ireland played well from set-pieces. They are super with their heads and they wanted to win the ball.”
“We could have done more up front but it’s not a matter of despair, we have seven points from four games, three away from home, so it’s all to play for.”
It was a far cry from the previous meeting with the Azeris when only a stoppage-time equaliser from David Healy prevented embarrassment that nigh t.
O’Neill had the luxury of introducing Niall McGinn and Paddy McNair from the bench, though an unnecessary yellow card for Corry Evans would have disappointed him somewhat.
And Lafferty has scored five goals this year, despite making just three starts. He has also netted four times in his previous three appearances at Windsorhaving scored twice against San Marino and once against Belarus before the Euros.
Germany maintained their 100% record with an 8-0 hammering of San Marino while the Czech Republic beat Norway 2-1 to go fourth.
O’Neill’s men play Croatia in a Belfast friendly on Tuesday and their next qualifier is at home to Norway on March 26.