Kyle Lafferty's brilliance the key to Northern Ireland's resurgence
After the tremendous display produced by Northern Ireland in Athens, it seems unfair to single out individuals but Kyle Lafferty's performance has to come in for special mention.
Romanian scout Aurel Ticleanu summed up Lafferty's contribution to Northern Ireland's 2-0 win as Michael O'Neill's side began a qualifying campaign with three successive wins for the first time in the country's history.
"Everything that Northern Ireland do is focused on the number 10 [Lafferty]. The number 10 is the most important player," said Ticleanu as he made his notes for next month's Group F qualifier in Bucharest.
It's a remarkable turnaround for the 27-year-old whose sending off in the World Cup qualifier against Portugal 13 months ago led to a very public rebuke from the furious Northern Ireland manager.
"Kyle's was a very reckless challenge, ridiculous," said O'Neill after Lafferty had been red carded only 14 minutes after being introduced as a substitute in the 4-2 defeat at Windsor Park.
|Northern Ireland's remaining Euro 2016 Group F qualifiers|
|Romania (away)||Friday 14 November 2014|
|Finland (home)||Sunday 29 March 2015|
|Romania (home)||Saturday 13 June 2015|
|Faroe Islands (away)||Friday 4 September 2015|
|Hungary (home)||Monday 7 September 2015|
|Greece (home)||Thursday 8 October 2015|
|Finland (away)||Sunday 11 October 2015|
Lafferty's dismissal ruled him out of the embarrassing 3-2 reverse against Luxembourg three days later and he played no part in the remainder of the campaign as O'Neill's side lost in Azerbaijan before a closing draw against Israel.
But a year on and the penny finally appears to have dropped for the Fermanagh-born player, who is now plying his trade with Championship side, Norwich, after ending his period of foreign travels which saw stops at Swiss side Sion and Palermo.
Lafferty's magnificent 51st-minute strike in Athens was his third goal in as many qualifiers and was further evidence of a player finally beginning to fulfil his potential in the green jersey.
On the stroke of half-time, the Norwich striker had hammered against the angle of the post and crossbar after producing a surging run.
For much of Tuesday night's contest, Lafferty appeared almost unplayable as he tormented the Greek defence with both pace and touch.
Thus, the Kesh man was presented with his third successive man-of-the-match award for Northern Ireland as his 12th international goal brought him level with Jimmy Quinn, Iain Dowie, Gerry Armstrong and Joe Bambrick's in his country's international goals charts.
|Kyle Lafferty brings up his NI goals tally to 12|
|Lafferty joins Iain Dowie, Jimmy Quinn, Gerry Armstrong and Joe Bambrick on the 12-goals mark for Northern Ireland|
While Lafferty was the undoubted poster boy of Tuesday's stunning win, there are other crucial components to Northern Ireland's stunning turnaround in fortunes from a previous campaign which yielded a measly seven points from 10 games.
After appearing a somewhat confused bunch during the last World Cup qualifiers, the Northern Ireland players are now finally on the same wavelength as their manager.
I always felt there was almost going to be an element of writing off O'Neill's opening qualifying campaign as he attempted to get his message across to the squad.
The players now appear to understand and, more crucially, to have bought into O'Neill's approach and the emergence of Reading's Oliver Norwood has been a particular boon to the manager.
Norwood's central midfield partnership with the ever-reliable Steven Davis has given the Northern Ireland engine room a really solid look.
At the other end of the age spectrum, veterans such as Aaron Hughes, Gareth McAuley, Chris Baird and Roy Carroll appear determined to do absolutely everything in the power to grasp probably their last chance to play at a major finals.
The statistics kept coming and coming for the unlikely Group F toppers after Tuesday's victory.
In addition to making history by winning three opening qualifiers, O'Neill's side had also achieved back-to-back competitive away triumphs for the first time in 21 years.
And whatever happens during the remainder of the group, Northern Ireland will be able to look back on a campaign that has yielded more than one away win for the first time in 20 years.
But while Michael O'Neill is adamant that he won't be looking beyond next month's game in Romania, inevitably supporters and part-time mathematicians will be surmising on a points total that might guarantee second spot and that prized place in France.
Throwing in my tuppenceworth, I reckon 18 points - in the shape of an away win in the Faroe Islands and two victories over Finland - will probably be enough.
Ok....we're getting ahead of ourselves here but there's no doubt that the excitement levels are building among Northern Ireland fans after their team's remarkable and unexpected start to Group F.