Northern Ireland thump Azerbaijan
Group C: Northern Ireland 4 Azerbaijan 0
HALLELUJAH! On a miserable night weatherwise, Northern Ireland fans were singing songs of love and celebration long before the final whistle.
A raincoat, famous, blue, or otherwise, would have been little protection against the elements in the first half, but Michael O’Neill’s men ensured there was no cause for gloom by ripping through the visitors’ defensive blanket.
'So long, Azerbaijan’ could have been the chant by half-time as the hosts dominated, with well-worked goals from Kyle Lafferty and Gareth McAuley giving them a commanding interval advantage.
Then Conor McLaughlin opened his international scoring account with a terrific header to ensure three points and second spot in the group, leapfrogging Azerbaijan, before skipper Steven Davis touched in an 83rd minute shot from returning hero Chris Brunt.
The visitors came into the game on the back of three clean sheets in the qualifiers, giving the impression that they would be as hard to get through as the traffic en route to the stadium. However, the hosts looked lively from the outset so that it never seemed we would be waiting for the miracle of a goal.
The partisan home crowd rolled out their songs of praise from the opening moments and the players responded in style.
Brunt was warmly welcomed back after injury ruled him out of the Euros and he looked like he’d never been away, heading away a dangerous ball into the penalty area by left-winger Gurbanov after only a minute Yet after that bright beginning Azerbaijan were pressed back by a forceful home performance with Brunt and his colleagues much more on the front foot.
Indeed Brunt quickly renewed his classic combination with McAuley, delivering a long fifth minute free kick that ‘Big G’ headed back across the box.
That type of precise long ball was evident, Jonny Evans next stretching the Azerbaijani rearguard to find roving right back McLaughlin, who cut in cleverly before picking out Shane Ferguson beyond the far post, but he could only find the side-netting.
There were a few worrying moments when Brunt required treatment after a clash of heads with opposition centre half Medvedev but both were able to resume after getting bandaged up.
Even more positively, the fact that Brunt had got a header on target from a long throw from Josh Magennis was a sign of what was to come.
The Charlton attacker, cover star on the programme, was operating out on the right, not as close to Lafferty as perhaps expected, but was proving a threat nevertheless. He fired in a fierce shot which the keeper parried out, but Azerbaijan could not cope when his hands came into play rather than his feet.
Magennis’s long throw was met by a clever back-header from Jonny Evans and Lafferty coolly swept it in on the half-volley from just outside the six-yard box.
Still largely overlooked by his club Norwich, ‘I’m your man’ was his message once again to the Northern Ireland fans.
The next moment of note was 11 minutes later, midfielder Makhmudov booked for a bad foul on McLaughlin, but it led to a second goal from a very familiar method.
Azerbaijan had probably prepared for this, but they could still no nothing as Brunt whipped the free kick in superbly from the right wing and McAuley met the ball with a thumping header past Agayev. Azerbaijan boss Robert Prosinecki replaced his centre-forward Sheydaev with Denis Yilmaz at the interval and within minutes he caused more threat than his 11 colleagues had in the entire first half.
However, goalkeeper Michael McGovern was alert and brave enough to slide out block as he ran on to a through pass.
Yilmaz posed a problem again just before the hour mark, his neat feet laying the ball back to Dashdemirov but the left back’s right foot shot almost dashed the stand roof off. However, the party atmosphere continued for the home fans, although not due to the introduction of the much-sung-about Will Grigg on the hour.
Instead, just when it seemed that Azerbaijan might make a match of it, their hopes were completely extinguished by a surprising source. Oliver Norwood swung in a corner from the right and McLaughlin met it wonderfully, his head guiding the ball into the net in a flash.
Davis’s celebrations were much more muted – typically he looked almost embarrassed at getting a toe to Brunt’s scorching low drive, and the captain may well want to give the goal to his team-mate.
With his side four up, even superstitious boss O’Neill gave in to the crowd’s demand for a wave in injury time.
Well, if he hadn’t, they’d surely have sung, ‘Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye.’