Sunday 19 November 2017

Northern Ireland back into second place after seeing off Lars Lagerback's Norway

Northern Ireland 2-0 Norway

Conor Washington of Northern Ireland celebrates after scoring his side's second goal during the FIFA World Cup Qualifer Group C match between Northern Ireland and Norway. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Conor Washington of Northern Ireland celebrates after scoring his side's second goal during the FIFA World Cup Qualifer Group C match between Northern Ireland and Norway. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

Liam Blackburn

Goals from Jamie Ward and Conor Washington put Northern Ireland in charge of their World Cup qualifier with Norway at Windsor Park.

Michael O'Neill's side led just 87 seconds in after Ward worked half a yard in the area to rifle a low shot into the far corner against a Norwegian side being managed for the first time by Lars Lagerback.

Washington then continued his record of scoring every time he has started an international in Belfast by sliding a shot between Rune Jarstein's legs after being released by the excellent Steven Davis.

Prior to kick-off there was a minute's applause at Windsor Park for Derry City captain Ryan McBride, who died last weekend.

Once proceedings got under way, the formation of O'Neill's side became clear, with Craig Cathcart slotting in alongside Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans in a back-three system that the hosts were reprising from the summer.

Chris Brunt was therefore deployed in a midfield berth where he could pose a more attacking threat, as he did within 90 seconds when Northern Ireland went ahead.

He fed the ball into Jamie Ward and though the Nottingham Forest forward failed to get beyond his marker when trying to turn to his right, he pivoted back to the right and fired an effort into the bottom corner just 87 seconds in.

It was a dream start for the hosts, who encountered few troubles bar McAuley and Conor McLaughlin picking up blows to the body in a contest their manager had predicted would be "very British".

Captain Steven Davis had space on the edge of the box but fired well over while Stuart Dallas' left-wing cross was easily collected by goalkeeper Rune Jarstein as Norway's inexperienced defence started to settle.

Norway's back four combined for just 48 previous caps, fewer than either Jonny Evans or McAuley have amassed on their own, and the pair had kept King quiet prior to an ambitious outside-of-the-foot effort that was simple for Michael McGovern.

However, the goalkeeper was only able to watch when Alexander Soderlund's 27th-minute volley from the edge of the box smacked the top of the crossbar following an error from McLaughlin.

McAuley's back problem, picked up in an aerial challenge with Soderlund early on, was continuing to trouble him yet the 37-year-old who has played every Premier League minute for West Brom this term was determined to carry on.

The pain may have been alleviated somewhat by a second Northern Irish goal in the 32nd minute.

McLaughlin found Davis in space and the Southampton playmaker threaded a pass through to Washington, who slipped a shot between Jarstein's legs to make it three Windsor Park starts, three international goals for the QPR forward.

There was brief concern when Dallas lunged in on Mohamed Elyounoussi, though he only picked up a caution, and the free-kick came to nothing to ensure the home side led 2-0 at the break.

McAuley was back out for the second half - and seeking a 10th international goal at corners, one which would have taken him past the great George Best.

A set-piece chance presented itself thanks to a complete mix-up between debutant Gustav Valsvik and Even Hovland, with the latter nodding narrowly wide in a gaffe that perhaps highlighted the naivety of Norway's centre-back pairing.

Lagerback's introduction of former Cardiff midfielder Mats Moller Daehli saw the visitors begin to dominate possession, though McGovern continued to remain untested as skipper Johansen sliced a 30-yard volley well wide.

As comfortable as Norway looked on the ball, they were unable to break down the Northern Irish defence to try, even when Hull's Adama Diomande joined the host of English-based players on the field.

A third Northern Irish goal would surely have killed the game off and it might have arrived had Ward picked the right option when bearing down on goal.

The left-footed Brunt was in plenty of space waiting for the pull-back but Ward tried to go alone and fired into a defender's legs, much to his team-mate's dismay.

The win for Northern Ireland puts Michael O'Neill's side back into second place in Group D, five points behind group leaders Germany.

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