Northern Ireland produced yet another coherent, intelligent performance at Windsor Park to lift themselves back into second place behind Germany in Group C, and in the process they effectively eliminated Norway, who were managed by Lars Lagerback for the first time.
A crucial early goal from Nottingham Forest’s Jamie Ward, followed half an hour later by a second from QPR’s Conor Washington means that this team, so intelligently managed by Michael O’Neill, have now not lost a competitive match in Belfast since 2013.
In a sometimes physical encounter, Steven Davis once again soothed nerves and supplied a different rhythm. Next up is Azerbaijan away. The Irish are on course for a play-off spot.
Even after their rise under O’Neill, the Irish do not often begin matches as favourites. But that was the case, which was also a comment on Norway’s decline.
Whereas O’Neill’s players won their group to reach the Euro 2016 finals in France, Norway came third in their group and lost a play-off to Hungary. Since then they have lost three of four World Cup qualifiers, dispensed with manager Per-Mathias Hogmo and appointed Lagerback. For pride as well as points, they needed a win here.
And Lagerback has something O’Neill does not possess – a Premier League centre-forward. Bournemouth’s Josh King and the early target of a Lagerback trademark from his Iceland reign, the long-throw.
But the experienced Irish defence coped and going the other way, did a bit more than that. O’Neill’s decision to play Chris Brunt in a more central midfield role was justified after only two minutes.
Advanced on the edge of the Norway box, Brunt delivered a low cross to Ward. Ward had his back to goal and Even Hovland in close attention but the Nottingham Forest man spun away, nicked half a yard and bent a sweet curling shot into the far corner beyond Rune Jarstein.
Starts do not get much better and after Alexander Soderlund had struck the Irish crossbar with an improvised 20-yard volley on 27 minutes, the first half was Northern Ireland’s when Washington made it 2-0.
Running onto a typically cute pass from the non-stop Irish captain Steven Davis, Washington showed the composure that has brought him recent goals at QPR to slide a low shot through the legs of the on-rushing Jarstein.
O’Neill’s task at half-time was to ensure his team did not relent. It is unlikely given their attitude and application.
The second half began with a goalmouth scramble that almost yielded an Irish third via an own goal from Gustav Valsvik, but after that Norway came again. They had to.
There was a spell of possession as the Irish backed off and slowed the speed of the game, but McGovern was not forced into a major save, while on a couple of home breaks Ward and Davis had shots that were charged down.
At last, on 77 minutes, McGovern was at full stretch. The Irish keeper had to dive to his right to divert a 25-yard free-kick from West Ham’s Havard Nordtveit.
Northern Ireland (3-5-2) McGovern; Cathcart, McAuley, J. Evans; C. McLaughlin, Norwood, Davis, Brunt, Dallas; Washington, Ward (McGinn 80)
Norway (4-4-2) Jarstein; Skjelvik, Valsvik, Hovland, Elabdellaoui; M. Elyounoussi, Johansen, Nordtveit, T.Elyounoussi (Daehli 53); King, Søderlund (Diomande 63)