AZERBAIJAN 0 NORTHERN IRELAND 1
Stuart Dallas’ stoppage-time strike earned Northern Ireland a smash-and-grab 1-0 success over Azerbaijan that kept them firmly on the road to Russia.
Missing eight players from the squad they took to France, and without Gareth McAuley for the final 65 minutes due to a first-half injury, Michael O’Neill’s side struggled in the Baku heat and were thankful to the profligacy of Afran Ismayilov.
And they secured an unlikely victory when Dallas rifled in a late winner, his first in a competitive international, having been teed up by the cool-headed Jonny Evans in the box.
Dallas’ attempt was just the second on target that O’Neill’s side had mustered and moments earlier he had replaced substitute Niall McGinn with full-back Lee Hodson, seemingly to settle for a 0-0 stalemate.
But late goals have become a hallmark of this team in recent years and Dallas’ winner keeps Northern Ireland in second place ahead of their September double-header with San Marino and the Czech Republic.
The Azeris had been shell-shocked by the Northern Irish tactics in a 4-0 Belfast loss back in November, conceding three times from dead-ball situations, and the first arrived here in just the third minute.
Evans glanced it over and after some nervy moments at the start, Robert Prosinecki’s defence settled into a more composed unit that strung together lengthy spells of pointless possession that rarely saw them cross halfway.
On one of the few occasions they did go long, it produced a clear opening for Ramil Sheydaev as he raced beyond a clearly injured McAuley only to rifle his attempt over when faced by Michael McGovern.
The scare showed that McAuley, who had been declared fit despite sustaining a thigh injury last month, would be unable to continue and that meant O’Neill had to scrap his initial tactics with the introduction of McGinn.
As the visitors settled into their new system, Azerbaijan began to take control, their possession creeping up to 70 per cent, yet there were still few issues for the Northern Irish defence to contend with.
Chris Brunt had slotted back in at left-back in that defensive four, and his foray forward almost produced a goal when a low whipped cross just evaded Liam Boyce and then Josh Magennis.
The half-time interval, which arrived just after McGovern collected Azerbaijan’s first attempt on target from Pavlo Pashaev, allowed O’Neill to tinker with his tactics again.
Magennis was pushed up to be the attack’s spearhead, with Boyce slotting in behind and McGinn and Dallas occupying the two flanks.
The tweak did little for Northern Irish fortunes and the noise around the Tofiq Bahramov Stadium rose once more in the 64th minute when Ricard Almeida picked out Ismayilov, and he turned Brunt inside out before firing into McGovern.
The visitors were tiring, and were nearly caught on the counter following a disastrous short-corner routine at the other end, while Evans’ lunge on substitute Namik Alaskarov somehow went unpunished.
That could have been a sign that this would be Northern Ireland’s night, as may Ismayilov’s blazed attempt over when he closed on goal, but there was still a sense of disbelief around the ground when Dallas scored in the second minute of stoppage time.
He owed much to Evans’ decision to square it to him rather than shooting, and the Leeds man steadied himself before firing into the corner to spark jubilant scenes among the 300 or so fans, who will now have a little bit more hope that they are due to travel this far east again next summer.