Northern Ireland 2 Faroe Islands 0
Northern Ireland are the unlikely early leaders of their Euro 2016 qualifying group after first-half finishes from Gareth McAuley and Kyle Lafferty eased them to victory over the Faroe Islands to make it two wins in as many matches.
A 2-0 scoreline may not be one to write home about against a side ranked 179th in the world, and only going in one direction on this evidence, but the result is a significant one – taking Michael O’Neill’s side to the Group F summit and giving them their best start to a campaign since 1968.
Both goals came inside 20 minutes and although a mountain of possession did not yield a third, goalkeeper Roy Carroll ensured it would be a blemish-free night at Windsor Park with his superb penalty save from Frodi Benjaminsen.
McAuley got the ball rolling in the sixth minute with his fifth international goal and Lafferty – who grabbed the winner against Hungary last month – doubled the advantage with a smart finish from Shane Ferguson’s pass.
A trip to top seeds Greece awaits on Tuesday and a positive result there could yet raise hopes of a first ever appearance at the European Championships for the green and white army.
The home fans, reduced to little over 10,000 by ongoing redevelopment work at the national stadium, were given a slice of pre-match inspiration with an on-pitch appearance by Belfast boy and IBF super bantamweight world champion Carl Frampton in the build-up.
Frampton’s walkabout upped the atmosphere considerably – no easy task with two stands demolished – and the home side responded with a flurry of early jabs at their opponents before McAuley landed the first clean blow.
The West Brom man’s night almost ended before it had begun, with the centre-half requiring treatment having thrown himself at the far post in pursuit of a Norwood free-kick.
McAuley’s next involvement, this time from Oliver Norwood’s corner, saw him react quickest to Chris Baird’s flick on before rattling a crisp first-time effort into the net.
Having settled quickly the green shirts were soon pouring forward, Niall McGinn and Jamie Ward making inroads down the flanks and Steven Davis thrusting through the middle in an advanced role.
Their second goal almost came from the unlikely source of right-back Conor McLaughlin, who met a corner with an audacious attempt off the instep, but it was Lafferty who did the business.
Ferguson was the creator, cutting in and looking for his striker’s run with a measured ball through the middle.
Lafferty finished coolly, ghosting past the Faroes backline and touching into the bottom corner.
The Norwich forward should have had another moments later when Ward’s cross found him unmarked six yards out but Motherwell goalkeeper Gunnar Nielsen stuck out a glove to make a fine reaction save.
The Faroes were living down to their reputation, sitting deep and inviting Northern Ireland forward, with Davis having taken up residence at the edge of the area.
The skipper twice lofted over when his chance came but his movement was leaving the Faroes chasing shadows.
Lafferty was also a constant threat, tempting Ragnar Nattestad into a crude challenge and later leaving him for dead to head another great chance just wide of the post.
It took the visitors 35 minutes to muster a meaningful attack and, improbably, it earned them a penalty.
Ferguson was the guilty man, needlessly tugging Joan Edmundsson’s shirt as the chased Hallur Hansson’s chipped pass.
Benjaminsen struck the spot-kick well but Carroll flung himself the left and pushed the ball against the post one-handed, his second penalty save in a week following a similar effort for Notts County.
The second half began with a familiar pattern, the home team dominating possession but finding one too many white shirts blocking their route to goal.
Norwood and Davis were close to passing their way round the roadblock on several occasions but the islanders just about held their line.
With little or no forward threat O’Neill gave McAuley a breather with less than an hour gone, Doncaster’s Luke McCullough earning a competitive debut in his place.
A third goal remained elusive, Ward dragging wide following a swift break by Davis and McGinn slotting wide with the goal at his mercy.
With little more than 20 minutes to go the mercurial Paddy McCourt was given the chance to change that, replacing his former Celtic team-mate McGinn.
The Brighton winger injected an element of unpredictability, but in truth the momentum had largely evaporated.
Ward came closest to putting the icing on the cake with nine minutes left, drilling a long-range free-kick low towards the bottom corner and drawing an ungainly sprawling save from Nielsen.