Lafferty on target as Northern Ireland hit four
- Credit: PA
Northern Ireland 4 Azerbaijan 0
Northern Ireland scored four for the second straight game at Windsor Park, with Norwich City's Kyle Lafferty on target, to leapfrog Azerbaijan into second place in their 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 Lafferty, Gareth McAuley, Conor McLaughlin and Steven Davis all netted in the same scoreline O'Neill's side had recorded against San Marino last month.
The hosts took the lead on 27 minutes when Jonny Evans' flick-on bounced once before Lafferty rifled in a half-volley. It was his fifth of the season, some achievement for a player his club boss Alex Neil apparently still has little faith in, and his fourth in his past three appearances at Windsor, where his value is certainly appreciated.
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Before the break it was 2-0 as Brunt's inviting cross was headed in by McAuley.
Azerbaijan showed some brief fight but it proved short-lived as another Northern Irish goal killed off any hope of a fightback. It came from a dead-ball situation as McLaughlin met Oliver Norwood's corner to guide in his first international goal. A great night was completed in the 83rd minute when Brunt's left-foot effort took a deflection off Davis before arrowing into the corner of the net.
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Brunt was credited with it, though replays proved he was right to act sheepish in celebration, as the Northern Ireland fans chanted, 'We're going to win the group, the Germans don't believe us'.
Germany's 8-0 hammering of San Marino emphasised why that is far-fetched but, heading into the new year, O'Neill's side are in charge in the race for second.