Northern Ireland leapfrogged Azerbaijan into second place in their World Cup qualifying group, after scoring four at home for the second game in a row.
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 Kyle Lafferty, Gareth McAuley, Conor McLaughlin and Steven Davis all scored in the same scoreline O’Neill’s side had recorded against San Marino last month.
Brunt was only an observer at Euro 2016 due to a knee injury that kept him out for eight months between February and October but having seen him return to West Brom’s starting line-up, O’Neill had no worries about thrusting him straight back into his XI.
He would have been concerned by an early head injury, though, picked up when he nodded an effort on target in a clash with Maksim Medvedev that required both players to don bandages after a lengthy delay.
The attempt, Northern Ireland’s first on target, had come down the right, where O’Neill’s side were looking particularly dangerous in the form of McLaughlin and converted winger Josh Magennis.
The latter’s pace and power were threatening an undersized Azerbaijan outfit while his long throws were also proving troublesome, and it was from that route where the opener originated from.
Magennis hurled in to Jonny Evans and his 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 still sees little merit in, and his fourth in his past three appearances at Windsor, where his value is certainly appreciated.
Brunt’s head wound needed further attention on the sideline but he returned to the field of play to provide the assist for the second before the break.
The absence of his left-footed deliveries have been keenly felt over the past year and when a free-kick opportunity materialised just off the right of the area, it was Brunt whose inviting cross was headed in by McAuley.
Killing the fightback
Azerbaijan showed some brief fight after the interval as substitute Deniz Yilmaz drew Michael McGovern into a save, but it proved short-lived as another Northern Irish goal killed off any hope of a fightback.
It came, once more, from a dead-ball situation as McLaughlin met Oliver Norwood’s near-post corner to guide in his first-ever international goal.
Three goals, all from situations where play was restarted with a delivery into the box, highlighted both the Northern Irish strength and the Azeris’ weakness, with boss Robert Prosinecki pointedly stating on Thursday his players were “not elastic” when referencing how they were undersized in comparison to their counterparts.
One thing that was stretched was the Northern Irish’s advantage in the 83rd minute when Brunt’s left-foot effort took a deflection, off Davis, before arrowing into the corner of the net.
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.