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Michael O'Neill hails four-star Northern Ireland


Michael O'Neill, right, was delighted with Northern Ireland's performance

Michael O'Neill, right, was delighted with Northern Ireland's performance

Michael O'Neill, right, was delighted with Northern Ireland's performance

Michael O'Neill lauded his Northern Ireland players for continuing to heed his message as they thumped Azerbaijan 4-0 in Belfast to move second in their World Cup qualifying group.

Chris Brunt marked his return to the international fold, for the first time in 13 months, with a goal and an assist as O'Neill's side leapfrogged the previous unbeaten Azeris in Group C, having recorded the same scoreline they had produced in hammering San Marino at Windsor Park last month.

Kyle Lafferty, Gareth McAuley and Conor McLaughlin were the other scorers on a night which ended with The Green and White Army chanting about pipping world champions Germany to top spot in Group C.

Given Die Mannschaft thrashed San Marino 8-0, first place may prove out of Northern Ireland's reach, but this result left them in the driving seat in the race for second.

And O'Neill was complimentary of his squad, who once again 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.

"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. We couldn't have asked for anything more on the night."

O'Neill's team will now enter the new year ahead of Azerbaijan, Czech Republic and Norway, with the latter 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."

There was specific praise for Brunt, the West Brom defender who only returned to competitive football last month after an eight-month injury lay-off that saw him miss Euro 2016 because of a knee-ligament tear.

He was in the wars again early on here having gashed his head but, after getting bandaged up and receiving two doses of treatment, it was Brunt's left foot which played a part in half of the goals.

"We couldn't replace Chris in France," O'Neill admitted.

"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."

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."