Lafferty inspires Northern Ireland to huge win
NORTHERN IRELAND: 2 FINLAND: 1
Kyle Lafferty scored a brilliant brace to see off Finland to hand Northern Ireland a huge victory as they close in on a Euro 2016 qualifying spot.
The striker, on loan at Turkish outfit Rizespor after falling out of favour at Norwich, buried a superb volley and a clinical header in a 2-1 success that leaves Michael O'Neill's men riding high with four wins from five in Group F.
Finland substitute Berat Sadik brought late tension when he grabbed an injury-time consolation, but there was no more late drama to prevent joyous celebrations in Belfast.
Lafferty has now netted five times in the current campaign, moving to 14 overall and second on the all-time scoring list behind only David Healy.
Windsor Park may still be a work in progress, with only 10,000 fans and two functioning stands due to redevelopment, but O'Neill's side are looking increasingly like the finished article as they look to ensure their first appearance at a major tournament for 30 years.
Lafferty's first-half brace was enough to win the game for Michael O'Neill's side and keep them only a point behind European Championship qulifying group F leaders Romania, who beat the Faroe Islands 1-0.
They had to endure a nervous finish after Berat Sadik's late goal but held on for victory.
Lafferty's first goal was an excellent volley on the turn before he nodded in the second, taking him second among his country's all-time leading scorers ahead of Colin Clarke and Billy Gillespie.
"It was nervous at the end, but we deserved to win the game. It was excellent today, the attitude, the heart and the team performance," stated Lafferty.
"Obviously it's all going right for me at the minute and I'm enjoying it. The first goal, I decided to hit it first time and luckily it went in," he continued.
"But it's down to the team, everyone was excellent today. Although I'm getting the goals and the rewards you have to look at the team performance."
Defender Jonny Evans, currently serving a six-match ban for Manchester United for spitting, was delighted to be able to contribute for his team.
"It was great to be out there and especially to get the win," he said. "We ground out the result and Kyle scored two great goals.
"It puts us in a really good position going into June, we play Romania here and it'll be a top-of-the-group clash."
O'Neill saluted Lafferty, who now has five goals in five games in this qualifying campaign.
He said: "Confidence is obviously a big issue, he had a bit of a difficult year but he's put that behind him, he's playing with a smile on his face and he recognises how important he is to this team.
"He scored two fantastic goals, we emphasise getting the ball in the box with quality and we saw the benefits of that."
Four wins from five games give Northern Ireland an excellent chance of at least finishing in the top three in the group if not the two automatic qualifying places.
O'Neill said: "We're eight (points) ahead of Finland, eight at least ahead of Greece (who play Hungary later on Sunday), we've still got a cushion over Hungary and we have a game in June where a win will take us top of the group.
"We're looking forward to a good week or 10 days with the players and hopefully a similar performance. (Romania) are an excellent team and they top the group so we know we'll have to be at our very, very best to beat them."