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Saturday 19 August 2017

O'Neill hails Lafferty after victory in Greece

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill believes Kyle Lafferty is emerging as the top-class striker who can fire his country to a first major championship in 30 years.

Lafferty's superb run and strike on the counter-attack put the finishing touch to a 2-0 win over Greece last night, leaving his side top of Group F having won their first three qualifiers for the first time ever.

A year is a long time in international football, but few can have turned their careers round in a fashion quite as dramatic as Lafferty, whose own renaissance mirrors the national side's neatly.

Northern Ireland had finished fifth in World Cup qualifying, with Lafferty facing an uncertain future having collected more red cards (one) than goals in O'Neill's first campaign in charge.

But with alternative options thin on the ground, the Norwich striker was handed a lifeline that he has repaid in spades - with man-of-the-match performances and goals in each of the last three matches.

"What we've seen is a top class international striker developing. Long may it continue," said O'Neill.

"Kyle has all the attributes to play right at the top level of the game - pace, technique, power, size. What he has done in the last three games is bring it all together.

"International football suits him, particularly away from home when there is space. When he plays like that, he is as good as any centre forward that you'd wish to have."

And Lafferty may yet get the chance to test himself on one of the biggest stages of all - with Northern Ireland well placed for their maiden appearance at the European Championship.

"We wouldn't have expected to win our first three games, but I had a good feeling about this game," said O'Neill.

"I said to the players if we had six points after four games, we'd probably have been relatively pleased. Now we have nine from three."

Lafferty himself was willing to go one step further, setting his sights firmly on France.

"We believe we can qualify for Euro 2016 and we have now sent out a massive message to the other nations in the group," the Norwich striker said.

"I'm lost for words. We knew this would be a tough game but we won comfortably in the end."

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