Faroe Islands 1-3 Northern Ireland: McAuley's magic makes Michael's men dream of France
Image credit: Presseye - Official IFA Twitter

Gareth McAuley's brace and a Kyle Lafferty strike secured a vital win for Northern Ireland against the Faroe Islands, and leaves them just one win away from their first ever European Championship finals.

The Faroes were enjoying a fantastically successful campaign and the previous win over Greece sealed an historic double over their Group F opponents. Lars Olsen had fitness worries and both Brandur HansonBrandur Olsen and Atli Gregersen dropped out, with Jónas Tór NæsBrandur Henriksen and Odmar Færø coming into the starting eleven.

Michael O'Neill and his side knew that they were on the cusp of making history, and were handed boosts with Kyle Lafferty, Chis Brunt and Steven Davis fit enough to play from the beginning. There was one blow, however. Jamie Ward was injured and unable to start, meaning Niall McGinn was handed a starting berth in his place.

The visitors pushed forward from the start and had an early opportunity to go with the pressure; Brunt's effort flew comfortably from 25 yards, however. Lars Olsen's men also were afforded a chance to give Michael McGovern some early concern but he comfortably dealt with a long throw-in.

Early opener for Northern Ireland

It seemed like there would be an early goal for one of the two sides, and it fell the way of the adventurous Northern Ireland. Oliver Norwood's free-kick from quite a way out was pin-point and had plenty of pace, evading the initial attempted clearance of Fródi Benjaminsen. Gareth McAuley was on hand to flick a brilliant header past the helpless Gunnar Nielsen from 12 yards and send the 200 traveling fans delirious.

The hosts were not disheartened and came forward in search of that all important equaliser. Set-pieces came and went while Joan Simun Edmundsson had a fierce drive well-held by the confident McGovern. Lafferty was becoming increasing isolated and struggled to find the necessary support to bring others into the game.

Faroe Islands deservedly level

Just like the Northern Irish, a goal came for the hosts after a period of solid pressure. Stuart Dallas was caught napping in his own area, as Nattestad stole the ball off Dallas' toes and slid across a smart cross to Edmundsson. The forward opened up his foot and guided the ball past the outstretched arm of McGovern to bring his side deservedly level.

There was to be one final chance that would fall Northern Ireland's way, and Lafferty couldn't have asked for a better one. A fantastic ball from Davis caught the Faroes' defence cold after pushing up, with the Norwich City striker staying onside he just needed to flick the ball past the onrushing Nielsen. Unfortunately, he got too much purchase on the header and left both sides to go in level at the break.

Northern Ireland start the second half strongly

The second half began with both sides pushing forward in search of the all important goal to put them ahead. The pair had small periods of dominance but couldn't translate them into chances, as Northern Ireland were seemingly keen to play keep-ball and not go anywhere fast. Norwood looked to break their mundane start with a 20 yard pass, though it scuttled past the post.

That seemed to spark the visitors into life and a counter-attack nearly provided the goal they craved. Davis stole the ball in midfield and spread the play wide to McGinn, who confidently strode past his man before digging out a cross. Lafferty pulled away at the back post and struck a powerful volley towards goal, only to be denied by Næs' brave block.

Red card proves crucial

Lars Olsen and his side were coping well but their task was made that little bit harder by Edmundsson getting sent-off midway through the half. After losing the ball, he turned from hero to zero and hacked down Norwood with a late tackle. Felix Zwayer was left with little other choice than to brandish a second yellow card and hand the forward his marching orders.

Northern Ireland instantly made the man advantage count and took the lead their play had deserved. Another set-piece proved to the undoing of the hosts, but this time it was from Brunt's delivery. He whipped in an excellent delivery that was at knee height and McAuley stooped low to head home, giving his side the control of Group F back into their own hands.

Lafferty seals the win

It was to get even better moments later and Lafferty finally got the goal to continue his excellent campaign. After his initial effort was blocked, Sonni Nattestad failed to clear and Northern Ireland's main goal-getter turned and rifled an effort into the far corner. His goal sparked wild celebrations on the bench and in the away sector, knowing that they had sealed the win.

It could have got even better had it not been for Nielsen's stunning save from Josh Magennis' late effort, although he wouldn't have been overly bothered with Hungary failing to beat Romania. That means a win for O'Neill's men on Monday against the Hungarians will seal their place at EURO 2016. The Faroes, who will take great heart from this performance, take on Finland.