NORTHERN Ireland’s dreams of a first European Championship appearance are one step closer to reality after goals from Jamie Ward and Kyle Lafferty against Greece gave them a third successive Group F victory.
Scorers: Northern Ireland - Ward (9), Lafferty (51)
That is the country’s best ever start to any World Cup or European qualifying series and a table-topping nine points would surely have been beyond the most fanciful expectations of manager Michael O’Neill following a fifth-placed finish in his maiden campaign.
But Northern Ireland are a different beast now, exemplified by former Rangers striker Lafferty’s hot streak of three goals in as many games – the latest a powerful run and finish from a predatory counter-attack.
The name of record scorer David Healy is not taken lightly in Northern Irish circles, but having led the line superbly and found the net against each of Hungary, the Faroe Islands and now Greece, Norwich man Lafferty is making a persuasive case to be compared favourably.
Ward also deserves immense credit, opening the scoring with a deflected effort in the eighth minute and setting up Lafferty’s second with a tigerish interception that turned defence into attack in an instant. Greece, though, put in a ragged impression of top seeds and boss Claudio Ranieri is already fighting for his job, jeered from the field after taking a solitary point in his first three matches.
Ward’s scuffed connection hit Loukas Vyntra and squirmed in at the far post to provide a perfect start for O’Neill’s men and the home response was untidy, overhit passes and snatched shots betraying frayed nerves.
The crucial two-goal buffer came through a predatory counter-attack finished in style by Lafferty six minutes into the second period. Lafferty had only to beat Kostas Stafylidis for a one-on-one chance and he negotiated the task with aplomb, turning inside and shrugging off his man before slotting calmly into the bottom corner.
Greece were tepid when they needed to lift their performance. By the end the away end was comfortably out-singing their hosts, who only turned up the volume to boo their side – and a rattled Ranieri – off the pitch.