Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland halfway to paradise after 2-1 win over Finland

Northern Ireland 2 - Finland 1

By Steven Beacom

Kyle Lafferty is the new king of Windsor Park.

The crown that David Healy wore with such distinction for years has passed over from Killyleagh to the pride of Kesh. It's official now.

The standing ovation and deafening roar of approval from the Green and White Army that greeted Lafferty when he was substituted late in the fray in Northern Ireland's 600th international proved that.

He's had his difficult and controversial moments in a Northern Ireland shirt but at the moment the Fermanagh native can do no wrong for his country.

Lafferty revealed last week in Scotland that he felt he was playing the finest football of his international career in the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign.

And last night, in front of a raucous crowd of 10,264 he put on his Sunday best as he continued to take the campaign by storm, scoring two stunning goals in a crucial 2-1 victory over Finland.

He now has FIVE goals in five Group F matches and the way Kyle is performing he is going to take this Northern Ireland team all the way to the finals in France.

Out of those five fixtures, Michael O'Neill's men have won four and stand on 12 points, in second place in the table behind Romania. Stay there and Northern Ireland will have a first major tournament in 30 years to savour.

There are five games left, three of which are at home, starting against Romania in June. O'Neill's heroes,inspired by the magnificent Lafferty, are halfway to paradise.

O'Neill made a big call by starting Jonny Evans in the heart of defence.

It was the Manchester United's man first game of the campaign and his first competitive international fixture since being sent off against Azerbaijan in a World Cup qualifier in October 2013. By selecting Evans, the manager broke up the partnership of Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley, so successful in the opening group games.

Unfortunately for Hughes, he was the one to miss out with Evans and McAuley flanked by full-backs Conor McLaughlin and Chris Brunt in the back four and Roy Carroll behind them in goal.

Lafferty, rested in midweek for the friendly with Scotland, led the line with captain Steven Davis, Oliver Norwood and Chris Baird in midfield supported out wide by Niall McGinn and Jamie Ward, who was lively from the first whistle in the qualifier played in windy conditions.

The blustery weather was making it difficult for defenders though that was no excuse for Evans allowing the energetic Teemu Pukki in behind him early on. Roy Carroll was alert to the danger producing an important save at his near post. From the resulting corner Pukki thought he had headed the visitors in front only for McGinn to clear off the line.

In a frantic start, Northern Ireland were sure they had taken the lead at the other end on nine minutes when Baird brilliantly headed into the net after a short corner routine involving Brunt and McGinn.

With Baird celebrating what seemed to be his first international goal in his 71st international appearance, referee Szymon Marciniak ruled it out after his assistant flagged for offside with O'Neill's players and the home fans mystified by the decision.

They need not have worried. Goals were on the way.

The first should have been netted by Derby ace Ward on 27 minutes when he found himself clear on goal after Lafferty had forced the Finnish defence to panic.

Ward deserved a goal for his endeavour but Lukas Hradecky saved well with the Kop ready to explode.

Six minutes later, however, the deadlock was broken by the brilliance of Lafferty, marking Northern Ireland's first game to be played at Windsor Park on a Sunday in sensational style.

Norwood, whose set pieces were causing Finland all sorts of bother, whipped in a cracking free-kick which was only partially cleared, allowing McGinn to head the ball into the path of the Fermanagh man who smacked a volley into the corner of the net.

It was a superb strike, his 13th goal for Northern Ireland, and typical of the 27-year-old in this campaign.

That equalled the old international scoring record for the country - before Healy went goal crazy - and on 38 minutes the Norwich City forward, on loan with Turkish side Caykur Rizespor, surpassed it with number 14, taking him past Colin Clarke and Billy Gillespie on the all-time list.

Again it was a fabulous goal from the ex-Rangers ace, who cleverly nodded the ball into the far corner of the net after an inviting cross from the excellent McLaughlin who, not for the first time in the half, had combined expertly with the never-say-die Ward down the right flank. Game over. There was no way back for Finland after that.

The second half was largely a non event with Evans and McAuley looking stronger as a pair with every passing minute and Carroll in solid form, until the visitors made a breakthrough in injury time when Berat Sadik netted.

It looked offside, confirmed by television replays.

But nobody in green cared at the final whistle seconds later, knowing that Northern Ireland had just delivered a huge victory.

France awaits. Believe me, nothing is going to stop Lafferty and his pals now.

Belfast Telegraph