Belfast Telegraph

Clinical and classy, our boys make finals a real possibility

By Graham Luney

Don't look over your shoulder Germany, Northern Ireland are coming for you! It's happening again, isn't it. You wait 30 years for a major tournament and then two come at once.

Yes, there's a lot of work to be done but Northern Ireland fans had a sparkle in their eyes, the kind of sparkle I get when I discover there's a sale on in Poundland.

The Euro 2016 journey will never be forgotten but make it all the way to the World Cup Finals in Russia 2018 and it could be a more emotional moment than when Rose pushed Jack to an icy death in Titanic.

A nervy November night at Windsor Park was anticipated with Azerbaijan, yet to concede a goal in their three qualifying matches, expected to pose more problems than the last visitors to the venue, San Marino. Fear not - it was another 4-0 victory.

The rain beat down, the wind was swirling, there was a chill in the air but Michael O'Neill's boys were simply too hot to handle. No-one wants to be second best in any sport, but offer me second behind world champions Germany in Group C and I'll take it.

Northern Ireland were aggressive, hungry and clinical, making Azerbaijan, who missed their captain Rashad Sadygov, look ordinary.

It was expected to be tense and tight but the players showed why we should have more faith in them - particularly at Windsor.

First half goals from Kyle Lafferty and Gareth McAuley got the party started and Conor McLaughlin's first Northern Ireland goal after the break put the icing on the cake.

The perfect script was complete when Chris Brunt's drive found the bottom corner, taking a slight deflection off Steven Davis on its way in.

Wasn't it great to see Brunt back where he belongs? Time will not ease the pain of his Euro 2016 heartbreak but dawn comes after the darkest hour and hopefully he will eventually put that magic left foot to good effect in Russia.

A nasty head injury in the first half threatened to cut his comeback short but the West Brom ace, complete with bandage, soldiered on and what a free-kick he produced for Gareth McAuley's header to make it 2-0.

It was also fitting that his drive rounded off the scoring and he was named man of the match, the smile back on his face after a painful summer.

Northern Ireland have now won eight of their last 10 home ties and their danger from set-pieces was underlined here again. And it was another special performance from the Northern Ireland fans, from their moving tribute to the war dead during a minute's silence to roaring their heroes on to a crucial victory. The Azerbaijan defensive wall was finally smashed by Lafferty in the 27th minute - his third goal of the campaign and 20th for his country was a sweet finish. Josh Magennis and Lafferty were in the mood.

The ground the Irish FA like to call the National Football Stadium was bouncing again when McAuley headed home Brunt's free-kick. Classy cross, trademark finish, Northern Ireland were bursting the Azerbaijan bubble.

Veteran Big G - 36 years and 341 days old - is now the oldest scorer in European World Cup Qualifying this campaign.

The McLaughlin-Magennis link up on the right flank caught the eye. Magennis was another man of the match contender and it was his long throw that helped create the opener. Oliver Norwood's passing range was a bit off in the first half but he made amends for McLaughlin's goal.

Northern Ireland should have seized control after the break but the visitors threatened. Michael McGovern needed to produce a big save to deny substitute Deniz Yilmaz while Arif Dashdemirov missed the target. But McLaughlin's first Northern Ireland goal in the 66th minute - a stunning header -crushed any lingering hopes of a fightback. That's McLaughlin who plays for Fleetwood, but surely not for much longer. The perfect night was complete when Brunt's powerful shot found the bottom corner with the help of a small deflection off Davis' boot. Forget that, it's Brunty's goal.

To have seven points after four games, with away trips to Czech Republic and Germany behind them, O'Neill will be a happy manager. No wonder he even gave the fans a wave!

The play-off route to Russia 2018 is still open to Northern Ireland. O'Neill and his players wanted momentum and they've got it. Next up is Norway at home in March. Nothing to fear.

A typical November night and thankfully, we can all now say, a typical Northern Ireland performance at Windsor Park.

Belfast Telegraph


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