NORTHERN IRELAND 2 FINLAND 1
Northern Ireland took another significant step towards next summer’s European Championship finals with a 2-1 win over Finland at Windsor Park.
A clinical double from Kyle Lafferty settled this qualifier in Belfast - the striker claiming his fourth and fifth goals of the campaign in stellar fashion.
The Norwich striker - on loan with Turkish side Rizespor - delivered a clinical one-two in the first half to floor Finland.
A sublime volley in the 33rd minute was followed by an equally majestic header five minutes later.
Substitute Berat Sadik ensured some late nerves with Finland’s reply in the 91st minute - but Michael O’Neill’s side held on for victory.
The win keeps Northern Ireland in second spot in Group F and on course for automatic qualification.
Finland started brightly with Roy Carroll blocking Teemu Pukki’s shot from an acute angle in the seventh minute.
From the resulting corner Niall McGinn was forced into a goalline clearance from Pukki’s header.
Northern Ireland thought they had broken the deadlock in the 10th minute when Chris Baird headed home Chris Brunt’s cross.
But the cheers soon turned to jeers as the effort was ruled out for an offside decision against Brunt following a short corner routine with McGinn.
Jamie Ward forced Finland goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky into a decent save in the 27th minute after being played in by Niklas Moisander’s errant touch.
A crowd of just over 10,000 fans was finally rocking in the 33rd minute with Lafferty’s opener.
Finland could only half clear Oliver Norwood’s curling free-kick, and when McGinn headed the ball back into the danger zone Lafferty sent a first-time volley fizzing into the bottom corner.
It was the striker’s fourth goal in the Euro 2016 qualifiers - and a fifth soon followed.
It arrived five minutes later courtesy of another sublime finish, with Lafferty meeting Conor McLaughlin’s inch-perfect cross with a glancing header that gave Finland goalkeeper Hradecky no chance.
It saw Lafferty go second in the all-time list of Northern Ireland goalscorers - 22 behind the country’s former talisman David Healy.
It should have been 3-0 four minutes after the interval, but McGinn could only blaze over from eight yards after pouncing on Ward’s initial miscued strike.
At the other end Pukki had Gareth McAuley in a daze but the striker’s low cross failed to pick up a team-mate.
Less than a minute later Pukki nipped in front of Carroll to get a foot on Sebastian Sorsa’s cross, but the ball fizzed wide.
Brentford’s Stuart Dallas came on in the 64th minute for his competitive debut in a green shirt, while Josh Magennis replaced Lafferty who strolled off to rapturous applause.
There were some late nerves when substitute Sadik finished off from 12 yards after Carroll failed to hold Roman Eremenko’s initial effort.
But Northern Ireland held on to claim another massive win and keep their Euro dream alive.
N IRELAND: Carroll, McLaughlin, McAuley, J. Evans, Baird, McGinn (Dallas 64), Davis (C. Evans 46), K. Lafferty (Magennis 79), Brunt, Norwood, Ward.
Subs not used: McGovern, Mannus, D. Lafferty, McKay, McCourt, McNair, Hughes, McCullough, Grigg.
FINLAND: Hradecky, Sorsa, Toivio (Arajuuri 46), Eremenko, Pukki (Sadik71), Sparv, Mattila, Uronen, Ring, Hamalainen (Pohjanpalo 43).
Subs not used: Maenpaa, Moisander, Moren, Schuller, Lod, Riski, Raitala, Lam, Kauko.
Referee: Szymon Marciniak (Poland)