Northern Ireland daring to dream yet again after San Marino win
San Marino 0 N Ireland 3
High up in the Apennine Mountains, Russia suddenly came into sight for record-breaking Northern Ireland last night.
A two goal salvo by Josh Magennis and a penalty from Steven Davis earned Michael O'Neill's men a hard fought victory that pushes them on to 16 points in Group C and for the first time in Irish FA history, Northern Ireland have won four consecutive competitive games following successes against Azerbaijan, Norway, Azerbaijan again and now San Marino.
With Germany beating the Czech Republic 2-1 in Prague last night and Norway gaining revenge on Azerbaijan in Oslo with a 2-0 win, Northern Ireland only need a point to confirm second place in the group and a possible play-off spot when they host the Czechs on Monday night.
Despite a 3-0 scoreline and their fifth clean sheet of the campaign, this was far from comfortable for Northern Ireland and indeed it was largely frustrating as the men in white struggled to find a way through against a San Marino team that could offer little apart from soaking up pressure.
The San Marino keeper Aldo Simoncini made some outstanding saves, Jonny Evans hit the post and there was also some wasteful finishing.
But when Magennis scored in the 70th minute to register the 50th goal under O'Neill suddenly there was a weight off the Northern Ireland players' shoulders, huge relief and two more goals followed before the clock reached 80 minutes.
Without Gareth McAuley, Craig Cathcart, Jamie Ward, Liam Boyce and Paddy McNair due to injury, O'Neill started with the reliable Aaron Hughes alongside Jonny Evans, making his first start of the season and just 24 hours after his big money move to Manchester City fell through on transfer deadline day.
In a 4-4-2 formation he unleashed all the attacking big guns, hardly surprising considering San Marino had conceded 30 goals already in this campaign. Magennis started on the wing allowing Conor Washington and Kyle Lafferty to play up front.
Captain Davis had a half chance from a Brunt corner on two minutes when he struck his shot from the edge of the box just past the post, however right winger Flippo Berardi looked dangerous on nine minutes when he was fed the ball down the right wing, he took on Brunt, cut inside and hit his shot well wide of McGovern's goal.
But that was about all San Marino offered in terms of attacking intent which pleased the 2200 travelling support. The part-timers, as expected were sitting deep, and Northern Ireland were coming forward in waves.
Evans was enjoying the freedom to bring it out of defence, Ollie Norwood was spraying the ball around, Davis set up numerous attacks and Stuart Dallas was constantly looking to play in Lafferty or Washington or go it himself.
On 26 minutes, Northern Ireland should have really opened the scoring. Norwood, on the edge of the box, played a delightful pass through to Lafferty, the Hearts hitman rounded the keeper and then with an acute angle from goal attempted to cross the ball, it was headed out but suddenly back into the box for Davis who couldn't control his effort and the San Marino defenders threw their bodies in the way and the opportunity was lost.
Ten minutes later, Simoncini made two terrific point blank saves in a matter of 40 seconds. First from Magennis, which he parried away for a corner, and then from the resulting corner Brunt found Evans at the back post, he directed his header to Washington but the QPR man's shot was brilliantly kept out by the San Marino keeper.
Northern Ireland's frustrating first half was complete when, with a minute to go before the break, Brunt delivered a corner to Magennis in the centre of the box. The Charlton hitman powerfully headed the ball but it came off the post, hit keeper Simoncini and then Evans could only strike the ball wide of the goal.
San Marino started to push up a little more in the second half and just after the hour mark O'Neill made his first change bringing on Shane Ferguson for Lafferty.
Ferguson took up a position on the left wing with Dallas on the right.
On 63 minutes, Washington was hauled down by Davide Simoncini just outside the box on the left hand side as he raced onto a ball and the skipper was shown a yellow. Norwood blasted his free kick at goal and it was punched away for a corner. Brunt's corner on 65 minutes, which was dropped by the keeper, ended up with the ball in the net but the goal was ruled out for an infringement on the San Marino stopper.
However Northern Ireland didn't have to wait long for a legitimate goal - just five minutes.
Brunt crossed the ball in for Magennis whose header was expertly saved by Simoncini, but Davis managed to keep the ball in play and squared it back to Magennis to tap the ball into the net.
Five minutes later Magennis had his and Northern Ireland's second. Brunt played the ball through to Washington in the box and rather than go himself, he played it across for the Bangor man to head home for his third international goal.
Then seconds later Northern Ireland were awarded a rather fortunate penalty when Alex Gasperoni was penalised for handball and after Niall McGinn had come on for Dallas and Corry Evans replaced Washington, regular penalty taker Davis stepped up and slotted the ball into the left corner.
Northern Ireland arrived home on a special charter in the early hours this morning bleary eyed but in the knowledge they are now only 90 minutes from securing second place with a point against the Czechs.
It's all set up for yet another magical Windsor Park night on Monday.
San Marino: A Simoncini, Bonini, Biordi (F Vitaioli, 57 mins), D Simoncini (Gasperoni, 76 mins), Palazzi, Grandoni, Cervellini, Battistini, Berardi (A Golinucci, 81 mins), Rinaldi, Bernardi. Unused subs: Muraccini, Cesarini, D'Addario, Stefanelli, Berretti, Cevoli, Tosi, Tomassini, Manzaroli.
Northern Ireland: McGovern, C McLaughlin, Hughes, J Evans, Brunt, Norwood, Davis, Magennis, Dallas (McGinn, 80 mins), Washington (C Evans, 78 mins), K Lafferty (Ferguson, 61 mins). Unused subs: Mannus, Flanagan, Hodson, Paton, R McLaughlin, McCartan, D Lafferty, Thompson, Carroll.
Referee: Enea Jorgji (Albania)
Monday: Azerbaijan v San Marino (5.00pm), Germany v Norway, Northern Ireland v Czech Republic (both 7.45pm)