Northern Ireland went into this game with a growing list of unavailable players but the positive news was the inclusion of fit again Gareth McAuley. Michael O’Neill made the bold decision to stick with Boyce and Magennis up top, leaving Kyle Lafferty to a place on the bench.
The opening 23 minutes was a tame affair before Gareth McAuley was forced off through injury leading to a tactical change from 3-5-2 to a 4-3-3. Niall McGinn replaced McAuley and Chris Brunt moved into the back line at left back.
Northern Ireland lost their rhythm while adapting to the tactical switch and Azerbaijan came to the fore. The home side managed to breach the NI defence on multiple occasions but failed to capitalise on any attempt. Michael O’Neill will have been glad to get the team in at half time with the score still 0-0.
Much of the pre-match conversation settled around Azerbaijani debutant Richard Almeida, a naturalised citizen who was born in Brazil. The midfielder looked sharp and was the key to unlocking the Northern Irish defensive line far too many times.
As the second half wore on it seemed that Northern Ireland would be happy to settle for an away point as first half entrant Niall McGinn was replaced by defender Lee Hodson. Azerbaijan continued to push for a winner only to be denied by Michael McGovern, the stopper responsible for the heroic display against Germany in France last summer.
The game looked to be petering out to a scoreless draw when Jonny Evans found Stuart Dallas in the box in added time. The Leeds midfielder took a poor first touch which landed favourably for him to strike goalward. The net rippled and Dallas & Co headed straight for the away section of the stadium! As the team gathered to celebrate it was hard to distinguish between the emotions of joy, relief and disbelief.
To say that a point would have been more than Northern Ireland deserved may have been considered a slight exaggeration on things, to come away with all three is something incredible. This may well be the sort of match Michael O’Neill looks back on as being pivotal when the Qualifiers finish in October.
Czech Republic’s 1-1 draw in Norway means Northern Ireland now sit 4 points clear of the Czechs and retain 2nd place in Group C. The current situation means that the Green and White Army could secure 2nd place and a potential play off place if they win their two qualifiers in September: away to San Marino and home to the Czech Republic.
McGovern, Hughes, J Evans, McAuley (McGinn 25’, Hodson 86’), C McLaughlin, Norwood, Davis, Brunt, Dallas, Boyce (K Lafferty 77’), Magennis.