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Northern Ireland beat Estonia in opening Euro 2020 qualifier

Niall McGinn celebrates after scoring the opening goal in Northern Ireland's win over Estonia at Windsor Park Picture by Desmond Loughery/Pacemaker
From Kenny Archer at Windsor Park

Euro 2020 qualifying group C: Northern Ireland 2 Estonia 0

A HOME win over Estonia wouldn't necessarily put you on ‘cloud nine' but after going their previous eight competitive games without a victory Northern Ireland will feel like they're floating on air.

Niall McGinn and captain Steven Davis, the latter from the penalty spot, secured a convincing victory in their Euro 2020 qualifiers opener, albeit one that could and should have been much more comfortable.

Indeed Michael O'Neill's men might even be top of this Group C, despite a 4-0 home win for the Netherlands over Belarus, had they converted more of the many chances they created.

Yet at least this time the performance brought the merited result, even if the first half seemed to signal the continuing exasperations that had been suffered last autumn in the Nations League and in a Dublin friendly.

In the absence of Olly Norwood, Paddy McNair started in midfield, with Stuart Dallas at right-back. Up front, without the injured Will Grigg, Kyle Lafferty got the nod at centre-forward.

It was no surprise that Estonia lined up with five at the back, although it was unusual that they started with someone who wasn't in their official line-up, Gert Kams at right wing-back instead of the named Taijo Teniste.

There was a tactical tweak from the visitors further forward: rather than the anticipated 5-4-1 formation they morphed between 5-3-2 and 5-2-3, with nominal winger Henrik Ojamaa pushing up in alongside centre-forward Henri Anier in the first shape, while playmaker Mattias Kait ventured right up the centre of attack on occasions.

Mostly, though, it was a 5-5-0 for Estonia, which led to a frustrating first half for the men in green.

The more experienced home right flank began better, with east Tyrone pair McGinn and Dallas both getting involved early on. Indeed the latter showed some superb wing-play when he pirouetted away from left wing-back Pikk right out on the touchline before delivering a decent cross.

Lafferty was largely living off scraps, though; he'd have loved to have been on the end of the ball that came McNair's way in the 19th minute when NI's left side combined in some style.

Left-back Jamal Lewis cleverly chipped the ball over the defence and Jordan Jones deftly sent it across off the outside of his right boot – but McNair somehow failed to make a proper connection from inside the six-yard box and the ball bounced high over the bar.

Estonia's deployment of three centre-backs was allowing the hosts plenty of possession but skipper Davis and George Saville weren't getting on the ball often enough.

Yet it did look like Lewis had won a penalty when he was tripped at the edge of the area, but the referee didn't even award a free-kick.

Craig Cathcart did have a headed chance when a short Jones free-kick was whipped across by McGinn, but it was a simple save straight at goalkeeper Sergei Lepmets.

Indeed his most notable contribution was launching left-footed kick-outs like rugby re-starts to the overloaded right side of the pitch as Estonia sought to use their height to advance.

Northern Ireland kept probing, trying to stretch the Estonian rearguard, but the closest they came to breaking the deadlock was a low left-foot Jones shot swept narrowly wide.

After that largely turgid opening period, their were two false starts to the second half, with Anier twice encroaching early into the home territory.

When the game did get going again, it was a different proposition, as were Northern Ireland.

Just when it seemed sensible to question the policy of playing ‘inside out' wingers, Northern Ireland's pair turned the visiting defence inside out, and Estonia had no answer.

Jones bent a dangerous ball into the box, Lafferty did really well to control it and lay it back, and McGinn raced in ahead of McNair to lash a left-footed shot to the net.

From a similar Jones centre McNair sent a towering header over, but the next goal almost came from Estonia.

Although he appeared slightly offside, Anier's practice had paid off and he ran clear onto a through ball from the halfway line but, with only Peacock-Farrell to beat, the Leeds 'keeper came out and stood up well, blocking the shot with his right leg.

Lafferty then won a knock-down but the more advanced Saville could not capitalise.

However, the policy of playing the Middlesbrough midfielder further forward paid off when he was fouled by Estonia captain Karol Mets and this time the Croatian referee did signal a spot kick.

Davis drilled it confidently straight down the middle and with 15 minutes of normal time left the hosts were cruising.

Saville could have done better with a chance presented to him by McNair's strong run, and sub Josh Magennis really should have scored when sent through by a superb Davis pass, but Northern Ireland were happy enough at the end to return to winning ways.

With the Dutch hosting Germany on Sunday, while Belarus come to Belfast, the Green and White Army's new song about winning the group might even have some credence by the end of the week.

Northern Ireland: Peacock-Farrell; Dallas, Cathcart, J Evans, Lewis; McNair, Davis (capt.), Saville; McGinn (C McLaughlin, 84), Lafferty (Magennis, 76), Jones (Ferguson, 81).

Estonia: Lepmets; Kams, Baranov, Tamm, Vihmann, Pikk; Dmitrijev (Sappinen, 84), Mets (capt.), Kait; Ojamaa (Vassilijev, 68) Anier.

Referee: Ivan Bebek (Croatia)

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