Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland strike it hot and it's another major stride along road to Russia

By Graham Luney

Northern Ireland started this World Cup qualifying campaign with hope - now they can start to believe.

When the draw tossed world champions Germany into Group C, the fight for a play-off spot was a daunting one but that didn't change the reality that these Northern Ireland players are loving life in the international set-up and their Euro 2016 heroics have whetted the appetite for more major tournament action.

There are smiles on faces and when you're enjoying your football, the results will reflect that.

Norway lacked quality and they didn't have a chance against a side that oozed confidence.

Unbeaten at home in a competitive fixture since losing to Portugal in September, 2013, Northern Ireland had enough guile and desire to beat their rivals at Windsor Park for the first time since 1975.

Norway may have lost some of the swagger evident during their 3-0 victory in Belfast in O'Neill's first match in charge but they came to Windsor knowing it was win or bust for their qualifying hopes and they were desperate not to go down without a fight.

But the visitors had their work cut out with their back four boasting only a combined 48 caps and they looked vulnerable. From the first whistle, the hosts set about their task with a blistering pace and Jamie Ward's goal inside two minutes was the perfect start.

His fourth international strike had Northern Ireland firmly on course to hit the perfect 10 mark in Group C and the home backline was rarely made to sweat in balmy conditions.

Big Gareth McAuley, winning his 71st cap, felt a painful blow to his back when he landed hard on the surface but he recovered to thwart any threat from the visitors. One stunning 40-yard crossfield pass from the West Brom ace underlined the home side's confidence but there was also the reality that at this level you could not lose concentration for a second.

Alexander Soderlund almost ripped up the script with a stunning volley that clipped the crossbar but there wasn't much of a storm to weather as Steven Davis sent Conor Washington in the clear with a sublime pass and the striker, on fire for Queens Park Rangers this season, supplied the cool finish on 32 minutes.

The front two had delivered for O'Neill and repaid his faith in them. Washington, who has scored in every match he has started at Windsor, is clever in and around the box and when given a chance he can be ruthless.

As for Captain Marvel and the official man of the match Davis, outstanding footballer and wonderful role model, we are running out of words to sum up the Southampton man. His pass for Washington's goal evoked memories of his assist for David Healy's goal against England - remember that one? Substituted late in the game, the 24-year-old earned his standing ovation.

Two up at the break, the party was already in full swing. When Norway nearly scored a comical own goal after the restart, you wondered how much more damage could be inflicted.

Northern Ireland, however, conceded more possession and allowed the visitors to apply more pressure.

When put under pressure, Norway looked nervous but O'Neill's side didn't ask too many questions and Chris Brunt was unable to stamp his authority on the contest.

Northern Ireland's intensity dropped with Washington's effort, which deflected for a corner, a rare moment of danger for the visitors who threatened themselves when Michael McGovern had a palm away Havard Nordtveit's free-kick.

The second half was a frustrating watch with Northern Ireland's frontmen offered little service. Fortunately for the hosts, Norway didn't look like scoring but a stronger side would have hurt O'Neill's men.

But it's a result which leaves Northern Ireland exactly where they want to be on a road which hopefully will lead to the finals in Russia, 2018.

Another win, another clean sheet, another crucial three points and only two goals conceded (both away to Germany) in their opening five matches, that's a superb defensive record. Norway will improve under new boss Lars Lagerback so O'Neill was fortunate to take on his good friend just as he's developing an understanding of his players.

Professional job done, there's still real momentum ahead of the trip to Azerbaijan in June.

That will be a difficult assignment but just like in the Euro 2016 campaign, the players sense that something special is within their grasp.

Norway may be the happiest place on earth in some people's eyes but football fans may disagree. This is a truly golden period for the Northern Ireland team - enjoy it while it lasts.

Belfast Telegraph


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