Northern Ireland got their first competitive win at Windsor Park in two and a half years as they edged out Lithuania 1-0 on Friday night.
After World Cup hopes were ended last month this was a much brighter performance from Ian Baraclough’s men in their penultimate qualifier, but old problems in front of goal remained as – despite Northern Ireland bossing play – only Benas Satkus’s 18th-minute own goal separated the sides.
The win moves Baraclough’s men back up to third in Group C, above Bulgaria who face Switzerland in their final fixture on Monday when Northern Ireland take on Italy.
This was Northern Ireland’s first competitive win here since they beat Belarus 2-1 in Euro 2020 qualifying in March 2019, and first of any kind since the 1-0 friendly win over Luxembourg the following September, both of them under Michael O’Neill.
Baraclough needed a response after the October window brought the disappointment of seeing their World Cup hopes ended by the Swiss compounded by a poor defeat in Bulgaria, and he got it in the opening 45 minutes.
Strengthened by the return of Jonny Evans, Stuart Dallas and Ali McCann to the starting line-up, the hosts looked faster and sharper as they dominated the first half.
Shane Ferguson preferred to Jamal Lewis on the left, delivered a series of dangerous balls, one swatted away unconvincingly by Ernestas Setkus before Josh Magennis’ glancing header went narrowly wide from another.
Steven Davis, earning his 131st cap, combined well with Dallas and McCann in a sweeping move which saw McCann square the ball for Conor Washington, but his first time shot was well saved by the Lithuania goalkeeper.
The reward came in the 18th minute as Satkus got his angles wrong trying to defend Paddy McNair’s inswinging corner and headed backwards into his own net.
Moments later McCann thought he had his first competitive goal for Northern Ireland, but his strike was ruled out with Magennis offside as he was deemed to have blocked Setkus’ view.
Lithuania tried to muster a response, threatening when Justas Lasickas raced through on Bailey Peacock-Farrell, who blocked the shot but saw the ball bounce up off Lasickas before going harmlessly wide.
It was the visitors’ only sight of goal in the first half while Northern Ireland had the ball in the net for a third time four minutes before the break, but Magennis’ header was ruled out for a push on Ovidijus Verbickas.
The Hull forward went close again in the last minute of the half, bringing a fine save out of Setkus with a first-time shot then trying to turn the ball in off Satkus from a sharp angle as the defender scrambled to clear.
It was a slower start to the second half as Lithuania pegged back Northern Ireland with set-pieces.
Magennis remained a livewire, and threatened on the hour mark as he tried to catch the goalkeeper out with a cross-cum-shot, but Northern Ireland were missing a spark – on the back foot again as Arvydas Novikovas twisted to make space for a shot which was ultimately straight at Bailey Peacock-Farrell.
Baraclough responded by sending on Lewis and Corry Evans with 20 minutes to go and then, with 13 minutes left, gave the exciting 17-year-old Dale Taylor his debut in place of Magennis.
The Nottingham Forest striker was straight into the action as he won a corner for his side from which Washington nodded narrowly wide.
But it would be Northern Ireland’s last sight of goal and there was a late concern as McNair pulled up clutching his hamstring, though he saw out the match.