Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland 2 - 1 Finland: Lafferty double stokes Euro dreams

Kyle Lafferty, unwanted by Norwich but indispensable to Northern Ireland, scored a brilliant brace to see off Finland and stoke his country's burgeoning Euro 2016 dream.

The striker, on loan at Turkish outfit Rizespor having struggled for game time at Carrow Road, buried a superb volley and a clinical header in a 2-1 success that leaves Michael O'Neill's men riding high with four wins from five in Group F.

Finland substitute Berat Sadik brought late tension when he grabbed an injury-time consolation, but there was no more late drama to prevent joyous celebrations in Belfast.

Lafferty has now netted five times in the current campaign, moving to 14 overall and second on the all-time scoring list behind only David Healy.

Windsor Park may still be a work in progress, with only 10,000 fans and two functioning stands due to redevelopment, but O'Neill's side are looking increasingly like the finished article as they look to ensure their first appearance at a major tournament for 30 years.

When the sides last met in 2012 they shared a rousing 3-3 draw and the early evidence suggested goals would again be on the agenda.

Oliver Norwood's fourth-minute free-kick caused jitters in the Finland box only to go agonisingly unmet, while Teemu Pukki gave Roy Carroll an early test when a Jonny Evans lapse left space at the back.

Pukki went even closer from the resulting corner but his header was calmly swept off the line by Niall McGinn.

Northern Ireland had the ball in the net in the ninth minute, Chris Baird flicking an unstoppable header in off the upright, but an offside flag quickly spoiled the celebrations.

A short corner routine appeared to be the cause, though it was initially unclear whether Lafferty or set-piece taker Chris Brunt was penalised.

Finland remained a threat on the break and it took a lung-busting chase and challenge from Steven Davis to deny Pukki a one-on-one with Carroll.

A gift from Niklas Moisander should have settled home nerves in the 27th minute, but Jamie Ward could not capitalise.

Lafferty's battling presence forced Moisander to touch the ball into no-man's land and although Ward won the race his effort was smothered by goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky.

The mounting tension was banished in the 33rd minute with Lafferty's brilliant first-time finish.

Another testing free-kick from Norwood was only half-cleared and when McGinn touched the ball back to Lafferty, the striker angled his body adroitly and sent a sweet volley whistling into the bottom corner.

The dam had been breached and five minutes later the fans in the bouncing Kop Stand were roaring in a second.

Ward and the impressive Conor McLaughlin were co-creators, combining deftly on the right wing to pull Finland out of position.

With Ward having drawn his man, McLaughlin floated a cross towards the far post where Lafferty cushioned a header into the same corner as his first.

That took the former Rangers man second on the country's all-time scoring list with 14, ahead of Colin Clarke and Billy Gillespie.

The atmosphere as the players emerged from the tunnel was electric, though Davis' failure to appear for the second half provided a note of caution.

The Southampton man was replaced by Corry Evans, with the armband passed to Jonny Evans.

Within moments the hosts might have had a third, and surely would have had it been Lafferty instead of McGinn who met Ward's scuffed shot eight yards out.

The Aberdeen forward was perfectly placed to convert but instead lofted high over the crossbar.

Having already thrown on Kasper Hamalainen in the first half, Mixu Paatelainen made a second change with Paulus Arajuuri on for Joona Toivio

But his side were an increasingly peripheral part of proceedings, Pukki's best efforts notwithstanding.

Lukas Hradecky might have killed the game by parrying Ward's long-range effort into Corry Evans' path but the goalkeeper recovered just in time.

With Lafferty making way in the 79th minute, ending hopes of a ha-trick, the closing stages looked to be little more than a lap of honour for the hosts until Sadik took advantage of Carroll's late parry to blast home from close-range.

That meant a late rush of nerves from the home side but a last-gasp corner came to nothing leaving the road to France open for O'Neill's troops.

Belfast Telegraph Digital