Azerbaijan 0-1 Northern Ireland: Stuart Dallas snatches late winner for visitors
By Patrick Surlis
Last Updated: 10/06/17 7:54pm
Stuart Dallas scored a stoppage-time winner in Baku to secure a precious 1-0 victory for Northern Ireland over Azerbaijan in World Cup Qualifying on Saturday.
The visitors had been holding on for a point when Dallas popped up in the 92nd minute, drilling home from 10 yards after a smart pass by Jonny Evans.
Azerbaijan, who lost the reverse fixture 4-0 in Belfast last November, squandered good chances through Ramil Sheydaev and Afran Ismayilov before Northern Ireland stole the points.
The win puts Michael O'Neill's side in a strong position to clinch second place in Group C and a potential play-off spot to reach the World Cup in Russia next year.
They have opened up a five-point gap to third-placed Czech Republic, who play Norway on Saturday night.
O'Neill kept faith with Liam Boyce and Josh Magennis up front after their impressive showing in the 1-0 win over New Zealand last Friday, but Northern Ireland struggled to break down their opponents in the first half.
The visitors' best opportunity was created by a teasing cross by Chris Bunt but neither forward was able to turn home on the stretch.
Azerbaijan should have taken the lead when Sheydaev outpaced a hobbling Gareth McAuley, but the young striker blazed over with Michael McGovern to beat.
McAuley, who was a doubt to start before the match, was swiftly replaced having sustained a thigh injury, prompting a reshuffle as O'Neill went from a back three to a back four.
The stifling Baku heat affected the pace of the game as Northern Ireland surrendered 70 per cent of possession in the first half, failing to register a shot on target.
They almost fell behind on 64 minutes but McGovern saved well from Ismayilov after a fine pass by the lively Richard Almeida.
A hard-fought encounter threatened to turn ugly when Gara Garayev steamed into Boyce with a high foot but Spanish referee Javier Estrada produced a yellow card instead of red.
O'Neill introduced Kyle Lafferty but Azerbaijan looked the more likely in the closing stages, with Ismayilov again guilty of wasteful finishing.
It proved costly as Dallas struck late to seal a vital victory for Northern Ireland in their bid to reach a second straight major tournament.
The victory puts pressure on Czech Republic in their match against Norway, with Northern Ireland next in action in San Marino on September 1 before a home tie against the Czechs three days later.