Michael O’Neill championed Chris Brunt’s impact in Northern Ireland’s 4-0 demolition of Azerbaijan 13 months on from his last international cap.
Brunt ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament during a collision with Wilfried Zaha in February and was consequently ruled out of his country’s Euro 2016 campaign.
After making his West Brom comeback in October, Brunt played his way back into Northern Ireland contention and had a key role in Friday’s comprehensive win, setting up Gareth McAuley’s goal and scoring their fourth.
O’Neill was delighted to have the versatile 31-year-old in the side once more, admitting they had missed his quality.
“He was brilliant,” O’Neill told Sky Sports.
“We don’t have a like-for-like replacement for him so when we lost him in the summer [for Euro 2016] we had to change our system. We saw his class tonight.”
Northern Ireland had a real impact from set-pieces and deliveries into the penalty area – something O’Neill said was no accident.
He added: “We played Josh [Magennis] purposefully on the right because we knew their full-back was small, so we exploited that.
“We got a lot of balls in the box and knew they would struggle to defend that. It was a comfortable victory in the end.
“We have drilled it into them; they know how we want to play.
“They make good decisions at the right times, three of our back four scored, so we are delighted with the result.”