Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland are on the World Cup march!
The boys in green, backed by a partizen 18,000 crowd, last night moved into second place in the Group C table following this impressive display against Azerbaijan at Windsor Park.
Big Kyle Lafferty netted his 20th international goal in a first half played in pouring rain, with big Gareth McAuley thundering home a header before the break.
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Conor McLaughlin and Chris Brunt sent the home fans into a frenzy with second half goals.
Regardless of the horrible weather conditions, The Green and White Army were in full voice. With Norway next up in March, O’Neill’s boys a perfectly placed behind group favourites Germany.
O’Neill made three changes to the team that featured in Hanover against Germany last month, drafting in Lafferty, Brunt and defender McLaughlin -- and did those changes pay a big dividen!
Brunt hadn’t long wait to get his first touch, getting a telling touch to a Ruslan Gubanov cross, which looked destined for the head of Ramil Sheydaev in the first minute.
The action quickly switched to the other end with Brunt picking out his WBA team mate Gareth McAuley with a sweetly taken free kick, but the big man’s knock down failed to reach Lafferty.
But the visitors almost capitalised on an Ollie Norwood error on 10 minutes which left Sheydaev with a clear run at goal, but Michael McGovern was out smartly to save.
O’Neill’s men carved open the Azerbaijan defence on 13 minutes with a sweeping move involving Jonny Evans and McLaughlin and, when Shane Ferguson arrived at the back post, he could only fire into the side netting.
Seconds later a monster long throw in by Josh Magennis found the head of Brunt, whose effort flew into the arms of a relieved Kamran Agayev.
Brunt and defender Maksim Medvedev required a sustained period of treatment following a serious clash of heads, both ending with a ‘Terry Butcher’ like dressing.
The boys in green went close again with Magennis gobbling up a cute flick from Lafferty, but his shot was brilliantly repelled by Agayev.
But the place erupted on 27 minutes with that Lafferty opener. Magennis launched another missile of a long throw, which flicked on by Evans and Lafferty’s first time shot ballooned the net.
And, the home side struck again five minutes from the interval. McLaughlin was crudely brought down by horrible challenge form Gara Garayev. Brunt whipped in a trademark free kick and McAuley did the rest with a powerful header.
Azerbaijan emerged for the second half, looking for a quick response. Substitute Deniz Yilmaz found himself in space on 50 minutes, but McGovern was out like a flash to save.
And the visitors threatened again just on the hour when Arif Dashdemirov was allowed time and space on the edge of the box, but he hoofed his shot wildly over the top.
But the life was sucked out of the visitors when McLaughlin struck on 67 minutes.
Ollie Norwood’s corner found the head of the Fleetwood Town player had his header fizzed past a stranded Agayev. It was his first international goal.
With the clock ticking down, substitute Niall McGinn sent Davis racing into the box, but he his shot was saved by Agayev.
But O’Neill’s braves struck again with eight minutes left. Brunt tried his luck from 22 yards with a fierce drive that flashed into the bottom corner.
Northern Ireland: McGovern, McLaughlin, Ferguson (McGinn 73), McAuley, J Evans, Davis, Lafferty (Lafferty 61), Brunt, C Evans (McNair 81), Norwood, Magennis.
Unused subs: Carson, Mannus, Hodson, Boyce, McGivern, Hughes, Paton, Lund, Flanagan.
Axerbaijan: K Agayev, Garayev, Mirzabekov, Medvedev, Huseynov, Gurbanov (Ramazanov 75), Makhmudov (Nazarov 70), Amirguliyev, Sheydaev (Yilmaz), Dashdemirov, Ismayilov.
Unused subs: Nazirov, S Agayev, Pashayev, Abdullayev, Eddy, Alaskarov, Mammadov, Abisov, Guliyev.
Referee: Manuel Lopez Fernandez (Spain).