From Macdara Ferris in Windsor Park
It was a case of job well done for Northern Ireland on Sunday evening in Windsor Park as they beat Norway 2-0 with relative ease. Both the home side’s strikers, Jamie Ward and Conor Washington, scored in the first half to give all three points to Michael O’Neill’s men.
With Germany topping the group by five points coming into Sunday, Northern Ireland’s qualification hopes are highest through the play-off route. With that in mind they were helped by Germany’s 4-1 away win in Azerbaijan earlier in the day. That meant Azerbaijan didn’t jump above Northern Ireland before the game in Belfast. Unsurprisingly, the Czech Republic had won in San Marino – by a 6-0 scoreline.
Just prior to kick off there was a minute’s applause in memory of the Derry City captain Ryan McBride. The capacity 18,161 crowd had just about retaken their seats by the time the home side had taken the lead.
It took just two minutes for Michael O’Neill’s men to get the opener. The Norwegian defence didn’t get tight enough to Ward on the edge of the area. He was able to set himself up and beat Rune Jarstein with an excellent right footed shot for his fourth international goal.
Both managers deployed their teams with a 4-4-2 formation but it was the Northern Ireland middle men who were dominant.
Captain Steven Davis was central to much that the home side produced in a man-of-the match winning performance. The Southampton midfielder had the opportunity to double his side’s lead on 17 minutes but was wasteful with his effort.
The Norwegians really only put the home side under pressure from Havard Nordveit’s long throws, which he looked to rain down on the Northern Ireland box from any advanced position.
Having dominated for most of the first half, the home side nearly saw themselves pegged back on the scoreboard midway through the half.
Shooting into the West Stand, under a blood red Sunday evening Belfast sunset, Alexander Soderlund tried his luck from long range but his effort came back of Michael McGovern’s crossbar.
Having had that let off, Northern Ireland got a deserved second on 33 minutes as QPR striker Washington latched onto a central through ball from Davis to score – a lead which his team held into the half time break.
The second period continued as the first with Northern Ireland probing around the fringes of the away team’s back four.
New Norwegian manager Lars Lagerback made a couple of switches before the hour mark to try and get back into a game, which was a must win match for his side but they couldn’t unlock the ‘Norn Iron’ defence.
A tame header from substitute Adama Diomande was the only influence the visiting subs really made.
As they pressed forward in desperation, it freed up more space for Northern Ireland to break into but on a couple of occasions Ward drifting wide to the left was wasteful with his crosses as the midfielders flooded the box.
McGovern still needed to be on his toes and he pulled off a fine save diving full length to his right to push away Nordtveit’s long range free kick with just under a quarter of an hour remaining.
A poor clearance from Jarstein when he came out of his box was nearly capitalized on by sub Niall McGinn whose shot from 40 yards needed to be saved by the backpedalling ‘keeper.
Having gained all three points to sit second in the table two clear of the Czechs, Northern Ireland have momentum with them going into the tricky away trip to Azerbaijan in June (who trail the North by three points).
After that it will be the make-or-break double header in September away to San Marino and home to the Czech Republic before the World Champions Germany come to Belfast in October. If they can keep this form and get some of their injured players back, second place will be well within their reach.
Northern Ireland: Michael McGovern; Conor McLaughlin, Craig Cathcart, Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans; Stephen Davis ©, Oliver Norwood, Chris Brunt, Stuart Dallas (Matthew Lund 87); Jamie Ward (Niall McGinn 80), Conor Washington (Kyle Lafferty 85).
Subs not used: Roy Carroll (gk), Alan Mannus (gk), Daniel Lafferty, Lee Hodson, Liam Boyce, Paul Patton, Ryan McLoughlin, Thomas Flanagan.
Booked: Stuart Dallas (44).
Norway: Rune Jarstein; Omar Elabdellaoui, Even Hovland, Gustav Valsvik, Jorgen Skjelbred; Mohammed Elyounoussi, Havard Nordtveit, Stefan Johansen © (Sander Berge 75), Tarik Elyounoussi (Mats Moller Daehli 53); Joshua King, Alexander Søderland (Adama Diomande 62).
Subs not used: Orjan Nyland, Andre Hansen, Tore Reginiussen, Andres Konradsen, Vegar Hedenstad, Veton Berisha, Frederik Semb Berge, Jonas Svensson, Jo Inge Berget.
Booked:Havard Nordveit (45).
Referee: Hüseyin Göçek (Turkey).
Attendance: 18,161 (official0).
Extratime.ie Player of the Match: Steven Davis (Northern Ireland).
Macdara Ferris is a contributor since 2007 to Hoops Scene (Shamrock Rovers' match day programme) and the co-author of Tallaght Time: Shamrock Rovers 2009 to 2012. He still believes that one day he will see Rovers win the FAI Cup. The first international game he attended was Luxembourg being dispatched 2-1 at Lansdowne Road by Jack Charlton's Ireland team.
He has been a writer with extratime.ie since 2012 covering the League of Ireland, the Irish National team and a few Champions League finals. He has also been known to pop up in far flung places like Ballybofey, Belfast, Berlin and Brazil to report for extratime.
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