Northern Ireland beat Azerbaijan 4:0 in impressive form at Windsor Park
Northern Ireland take another step closer to qualifying for the World Cup 2018
Northern Ireland edged another step closer to World Cup 2018 after a surprisingly comfortable victory over Azerbaijan.
They scored four times against the Eastern Europeans who, before this game, had not conceded a goal in qualifying.
Kyle Lafferty led the charge with his 20th international strike midway through the first half.
A thumping Gareth McAuley header - evoking memories of his goal against Ukraine at the Euros - sent the home side into a 2-0 half-time lead.
Conor McLaughlin headed number three in the second half, before man-of-the-match Chris Brunt added the fourth late on.
The jubilant GAWA sang “We’re going to top the group” and “You’re not very good” as the goals - and the rain - flowed.
It means that manager Michael O’Neill’s target of seven points from the opening four qualifying games has been achieved.
Northern Ireland now have a chance to round off a memorable 2016 when they face Croatia in an end-of-year friendly on Tuesday night.
The road to Russia resumes in the spring, with Northern Ireland hosting Norway on March 26.
Amid another frenzied atmosphere in Belfast, it was Lafferty who got the night up and running with a trademark finish.
The 29-year-old, Northern Ireland’s talisman during the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, broke the deadlock in the 26th minute
He reacted sharply after a long throw from Josh Magennis, flicked on by Corry Evans, dropped invitingly.
Meeting it on the bounce, the striker crashed home a terrific finish from 10 yards to raise the noise level among the 18,000-plus crowd.
It’s now 20 goals in 58 appearances for the Fermanagh man, who struggles to get a game at club level.
The game was preceded by a minute’s silence, with fans forming a poppy mosaic in the stands.
Northern Ireland had gone close after 12 minutes when a cross from McLaughlin picked out Shane Ferguson at the back post. However, the full-back drove his shot into the side-netting.
Magennis also threatened, drawing a good save from the goalkeeper with a stinging strike from 10 yards.
The game was held up just past the quarter-hour after Brunt - who missed the Euros through injury - collided with Maksim Medvedev.
After several minutes’ treatment the pair returned - both sporting large white bandages around their heads.
Northern Ireland doubled their lead in the 39th minute.
King of Lyon Gareth McAuley rose to meet a terrific free-kick from Brunt, powering a thumping header into the roof of the net.
It brought back glorious memories of that goal in Northern Ireland’s 2-0 win against the Ukrainians in France this summer.
Azerbaijan had been caught cold by the pace and power of the home side.
They went close in the second half when Arif Dashdemirov turned and shot from the edge of the box, but his effort flashed just over.
Northern Ireland made the game safe with a third goal in the 65th minute.
A corner was aimed at the front post by Olly Norwood and McLaughlin guided his header into the top corner.
Brunt added number four in the 82nd minute.
His shot from outside the box goes through a lot of bodies and before finding the back of the net to complete a terrific night.
NORTHERN IRELAND: McGovern, McLaughlin, McAuley, J Evans, Brunt, C Evans, Norwood, Davis, Ferguson, Magennis, Lafferty
Subs: Carson, Mannus, Hodson, Boyce, McGinn, Grigg, McGivern, McNair, Hughes, Paton, Lund, Flanagan
AZERBAIJAN: K Agayev, Mirzabekov, Medvedev, Huzeynov, Dashdemirov, Garayev, Makhmudov, Amirguliyev, Ismayilov, Gurbanov, Sheydaev
Subs: Nazirov, S Agayev, Pashayev, Abdullayev, Eddy, Alaskarov, Yilmaz, Nazarov, Mammadov, Abisov, Guliyev, Ramazanov
Referee: Clement Turpin (France)