Belfast soothed as the painful wait is over

Northern Ireland 2 Azerbaijan 0
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The Independent Football

Rarely do statistics state such a resounding need for victory and Lawrie Sanchez last saw his side win more than a year ago. With midweek disruptions ahead of yesterday's match, it looked likely that the dreadful drought would continue.

Sanchez had sent home Cardiff City's Phil Mulryne and Jeff Whitley for breaching a team curfew on Wednesday, but he believes it only served to a galvanise his team.

"When you send two of your players away from the hotel it is not something you want to do. Sometimes, though, the chaos works for a team in that it concentrates your mind on what the job is. It is about being professional and preparing correctly," said a relieved Sanchez.

The home side made a shaky start but recovered to dominate the match. They had the ball in the net in the 32nd minute when Damien Johnson's cross was headed home by James Quinn, but the effort was ruled out for an over-zealous shoulder charge on goalkeeper Dmitriy Kramarenko.

Steve Davis then squandered a glorious chance on 36 minutes as he shot wide, but the Ulstermen continued to apply the pressure in the second period. The breakthrough that long suffering home supporters had craved, finally came as Stuart Elliott guided a 25-yard free kick beyond a stranded Kramarenko and into the roof of the net after 59 minutes.

A stubborn Azerbaijan had held Sanchez's men to a goalless draw earlier in the campaign, but buoyed by a rare goal and feverish home support his side delivered the knockout blow with five minutes remaining.

Gillespie was fouled in the box by Rafael Amirbekov and substitute Warren Feeney stepped up and sealed the long awaited win. It was a first international goal for a player whose grandfather Jimmy and father Warren had also worn the green and white.

It also acted as a timely boost ahead of England's trip to Belfast on Wednesday and Sanchez feels there is now renewed belief that his team can make life as difficult as possible for the visitors.

"I will enjoy this one and worry about England when I wake up," he said. "We are not expected to win as we are 100-odd places below them in the Fifa rankings. We can be relaxed and be professional.

"All the fans are looking forward to watching the superstars but they also want to see their team give a good display. I am confident that will be the order of the day."