Saturday 24 February 2018

Chris Brunt returns to the Northern Ireland starting line-up

Chris Brunt starred on his return from injury
Chris Brunt starred on his return from injury
Chris Brunt missed Euro 2016 with a knee injury

Chris Brunt was back in a Northern Ireland starting line-up for the first time in 13 months for the World Cup qualifier with Azerbaijan in Belfast.

The West Brom man, who missed Euro 2016 with a knee injury, was one of three changes from the team defeated by Germany last month, with Conor McLaughlin and Kyle Lafferty also included, while Aaron Hughes, Lee Hodson and the injured Jamie Ward all came out.

Azerbaijan, managed by ex-Portsmouth midfielder Robert Prosinecki, were without their captain and most capped player Rashad Sadygov due to a knee issue as they looked to maintain their unbeaten start in Group C.

Earlier this week the Irish Football Association had announced they would mark Armistice Day with a minute's silence, a giant poppy mosaic display on The Kop and black armbands, but no poppy on the shirt or armband due to FIFA regulations.

Once the game had kicked off, Michael O'Neill's tactics became clear, with Josh Magennis deployed on the right-hand side of a midfield five and Lafferty operating up front on his own.

Brunt was utilised at left-back rather than further forward and he had to be diligent defensively to nod behind for a corner within the first minute.

Azerbaijan had taken the lead early on during their last trip to Belfast four years ago, and Ramil Sheydaev almost found a path beyond Gareth McAuley and Michael McGovern only for the goalkeeper to claim.

The hosts were otherwise bright, though, and McLaughlin's deep cross from the right was fired into the side netting by Shane Ferguson coming in around the back.

It was down the right where Northern Ireland looked most promising and from a Magennis long throw, Brunt nodded their first effort on target at Kamran Agayev, only to suffer a clash of heads with Maksim Medvedev that created a four-minute delay and saw both players donning bandages before they returned.

The new-look right flank of McLaughlin and Magennis were causing the Azeris issues under Prosinecki's nose and the latter had a good opening that he fired into Agayev's fists after Lafferty's flick on.

When the deadlock was broken in the 27th minute in the driving Belfast rain, it was no surprise the move originated from the right-hand side.

Magennis' long throw was nodded on by Jonny Evans and the ball bounced once before Lafferty swiped a half volley into the net for his 20th Northern Irish goal in his 58th international appearance.

It was the 29-year-old's fifth goal of the season for club and country and it came on just his third start of the campaign.

With Azerbaijan having mustered just two shots on target in their past two fixtures, O'Neill must have been feeling pretty confident, though Brunt's head injury will have been a big concern given he needed it tending to just after the goal.

He was able to return and the magic he conjures up from free-kicks, an element his country have missed over the past year, was evident with the second goal in the 40th-minute.

From a position near the right-hand side of the box, Brunt delivered a glorious cross to the back post where McAuley was perfectly placed to rise above his under-sized marker and head home.

INTRO: Northern Ireland took charge of their World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan thanks to first-half goals from Kyle Lafferty and Gareth McAuley.

Three points for Michael O'Neill's side would move them above the previously unbeaten Azeris into second in the group and they went ahead midway through the first half through Lafferty's 20th international goal.

The returning Chris Brunt, who suffered a head injury early on that required a bandage, then delivered a perfect free-kick for McAuley to head in at the back post to make it 2-0.

Prosinecki introduced Deniz Yilmaz at half-time, a former Turkey youth international who had only recently pledged his allegiance to the Azeris, and that provided an immediate spark as McGovern was forced to deny him within five minutes of the restart.

Azerbaijan had beaten Norway and drawn with Czech Republic in their past two contests and they started the second half with more intent, Arif Dashdemirov also curling over after Magennis had failed to spot the danger in his box.

The hour mark saw O'Neill replace Lafferty with Will Grigg, playing his first international minutes since before the Euros, and a third goal soon arrived, although it was not from the terrace favourite.

It came from another set-piece, though this one was not sent in by Brunt, as Oliver Norwood's near-post corner was brilliantly headed home by McLaughlin.

It was the Fleetwood full-back's first international goal as the Northern Irish once again exposed their opponents at a set-piece opportunity.

That would have been particularly galling for Prosinecki who, at his pre-match press conference on Thursday had made the point he could not "stretch" players lacking the size of their counterparts.

The Green and White Army could now relax and serenade their team with 'Oles' and comparisons to Brazil.

It was a far cry from the previous meeting with the Azeris when only a stoppage-time equaliser from David Healy prevented embarrassment that night.

O'Neill had the luxury of introducing Niall McGinn and Paddy McNair from the bench, though an unnecessary yellow card for Corry Evans would have disappointed him somewhat.

Skipper Davis was then thwarted by Agayev only to beat him in the 83rd-minute with an effort that Brunt was originally credited with over the tannoy.

He fired a left-footed attempt across the box past Davis and into the far corner of the net, though the West Brom full-back was only sheepishly claiming the goal having perhaps thought himself that his captain had got a touch, and replays proved he had.

The name of the scorer did not matter to the crowd, who chanted, 'We're going to win the group, the Germans don't believe us'. While such a predication appears far-fetched O'Neill's side are, for the time being, in the driving seat in the race for second.

INTRO: Northern Ireland scored four for the second straight game at Windsor Park to leapfrog Azerbaijan into second place in their World Cup qualifying group.

Michael O'Neill's men knew three points over the previously unbeaten Azeris would see them move directly behind Germany in Group C, where four nations have hopes of securing a possible play-off berth, and a 4-0 rout in Belfast ensured they will enter the new year sitting second.

The returning Chris Brunt, back in the starting XI for the first time in 13 months, defied a head injury to create two assists as Kyle Lafferty, Gareth McAuley, Conor McLaughlin and Steven Davis all scored in the same scoreline O'Neill's side had recorded against San Marino last month.

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