Northern Ireland faced familiar foes on Friday night, with Azerbaijan visiting Windsor Park for the third time in four World Cup Qualifying campaigns.
The two previous meetings, saw both sides battling it out to avoid finishing bottom of the group. This time around, they were battling it out for second place and a play-off spot. Victory for Northern Ireland would see them go into the Winter break in that position, which was currently occupied by Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan’s opening three games had seen two wins and a draw, keeping clean sheets in all of them. A win over Norway and a draw against Czech Republic suggests they’re better than people think. Only managing to beat San Marino 1-0 suggests they’re not as good as their second place position suggests.
Azerbaijan is an ambitious country, determined to showcase themselves to the world, hosting Eurovision, European Games, European Grand Prix and Euro 2020.
One of their leading clubs, Qarabag, are regulars in the UEFA Cup Group Stages. What they really want, is for their national team to reach a major finals.
Northern Ireland’s past meetings with Azerbaijan have been associated with false dawns. Northern Ireland’s only win against them in September 2015 was a few days before the famous win against England which kickstarted the heroic, but ultimately unsuccessful Euro 2008 Qualifying campaign.
The draw at Windsor Park in 2012 had followed a draw in Portugal, bringing everyone back down to earth.
It was Azerbaijan who had the first attack of the game, with Chris Brunt being forced to head the ball out for a corner in the opening minutes as an Azeri attacker eyed up a cross.
There was a nervous moment (from where I was) when Shane Ferguson had a coming together during a challenge in his own penalty area, but the lack of Azerbaijan protest suggested they didn’t believe it was a penalty, which was fine by me.
After that, Northern Ireland took control of the game, which wasn’t disrupted when the game was stopped due to a clash of heads between Chris Brunt and an Azerbaijan player.
Both players were fit to return, embracing each other was they re-entered the pitch.
Shane Ferguson had Northern Ireland’s first real chance when he hit the side netting from close range.
Despite being on top, Northern Ireland had to be wary of Azeri counter-attacks.
Eventually, the goal came when a long throw was flicked to Kyle Laffety, who fired home, similar to his goal against Finland in 2015.
The pressure continued, and a second goal came via a header from Gareth MacAuley, who was in 4th Year at secondary school when Azerbaijan played their first competitive international in 1994.
Azerbaijan made a good start to the second-half as they tried to get back into the game, with Michael McGivern being forced out to make a save, while another shot went just over the bar.
The most flammible man in world football, Will Grigg, was introduced from the bench. Ironically, he probably should have been playing for Azerbaijan, which is known as “The Land Of Fire”
It wasn’t Grigg who got the third, but Conor McLaughlin, heading home from a corner. That was the three points wrapped up. There was no doubt any more.
That wasn’t the end of the scoring, as Chris Brunt made it 4-0, a second successive home win by that score.
Just a pity supporters in The Kop had to endure smelly tramps smoking throughout the game while stewards sat about doing nothing. It’s bad enough that the designers of Windsor Park pander to these arseholes by giving them their own area, but it’s still not good enough for them, that they don’t even have the basic consideration for other supporters to go 45 minutes without.
Elsewhere in the group, Czech Republic beat Norway 2-1. A draw would have been great.
Next up, is Norway. Northern Ireland can effectively put Norway out of the race by beating them at Windsor Park in March next year.
The only problem is, our record against Norway is awful, but those were friendly games. Maybe we are due a win in a competitive game? Norway’s last competitive visit to Belfast was a 3-0 win for Northern Ireland in 1975.
The fixture list is tantalising. After Norway is Azerbaijan away, then San Marino. Imagine the momentum if we won those games ahead of Czech Republic visiting Windsor Park in September 2017.
Anyway, it’s time to put thoughts of Russia to one side for a few months, but not before a friendly at home to Croatia to finish the year off.