Greece 0 Northern Ireland 2
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.
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 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 a top seed and former Chelsea boss Claudio Ranieri is already fighting for his job, jeered from the field after taking a solitary point in his first three matches.
Ranieri had been afforded a muted reception in the build-up, less indeed than former Olympiacos goalkeeper Roy Carroll on his return to Athens.
There were also large swathes of empty seats in the stands, meaning a far cry from the white hot reception Northern Ireland had been promised.
And they capitalised by applying early pressure, pushing the hosts back into their own half almost immediately.
Lafferty had a sight of goal as early as the sixth minute when he went toe to toe with goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis in pursuit of Oliver Norwood’s free-kick, eventually settling for a corner.
Norwood’s first corner delivery came to nothing but a fortuitous touch from a white shirt gave him a second chance.
This time the ball skipped through the area to Ward, whose scuffed connection hit Loukas Vyntra and squirmed in at the far post with Karnezis appearing to react slowly.
It was the perfect start for O’Neill’s men and the home response was initially untidy, overhit passes and snatched shots betraying frayed nerves.
A wonderful ball over the top from Giannis Maniatis finally caught Shane Ferguson out but a heavy touch from Stefanos Athanasiadis and a covering challenge from Aaron Hughes removed the danger.
With confidence renewed, Greece sprung a high defensive line in the 33rd minute, Giorgios Samaras breaking and playing in Nikos Karelis.
Carroll charged out of his area to meet the forward who lifted the ball over the Notts County goalkeeper but comfortably wide.
Northern Ireland almost burgled a second moments before the half-time whistle when Chris Baird’s incisive pass freed Lafferty.
He did brilliantly to ghost past last man Kostas Manolas and surprised Karnezis with a powerful strike that crashed against the woodwork.
They did not have long to wait to establish that crucial two-goal buffer though, a predatory counter-attack finished in style by Lafferty six minutes into the second period.
Greece had committed men forward having won a promising free-kick, but in the aftermath of the set-piece Ward gave Lafferty the chance to sprint on goal, hurling himself at a loose ball and somehow managing to pick out his team-mate 30 yards ahead.
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.
The finish was coolness itself but an adrenaline-fuelled celebration showed how much it meant to the Norwich striker.
Lafferty, having now scored in all three of the qualifiers to date, was felled soon after by a rough tackle but returned to action after treatment.
Greece were tepid when they needed to lift their performance, spraying the ball out of play on several occasions and producing a succession of wild attempts on goal.
Panagiotis Tachtsidis looked likeliest to fashion a response but could not keep the ball down when he addressed two inviting free-kicks.
Northern Ireland sent on three lots of fresh legs, Josh Magennis relieving a battered Lafferty from his duties in attack, Ryan McGivern shoring up the left flank and Ben Reeves handed a high-pressure debut in midfield.
But by the end of the match those occupying the away end were still comfortably out-singing their hosts, who only turned up the volume to boo their side – and a rattled Ranieri – off the pitch.