Late equaliser from Healy not enough
Northern Ireland 1 Azerbaijan 1:Northern Ireland’s World Cup qualifying campaign lies in tatters despite record goalscorer David Healy securing a last-gasp equaliser against minnows Azerbaijan at Windsor Park.
Rauf Aliyev scored a screamer to give the Group F minnows a fifth-minute lead and Northern Ireland conspired to waste at least half a dozen glorious chances to equalise inside 90 minutes.
Craig Cathcart and Chris Baird spurned four of the best between them, and it took Healy’s first goal in four years, deep in added time, to avert what would have been an embarrassing defeat.
The result leaves Northern Ireland with three points from four games and all but out of the reckoning.
The home side began positively and should probably have taken a third-minute lead when Niall McGinn floated over a precise cross for Kyle Lafferty, who somehow headed over from just six yards.
That miss was punished within 90 seconds as Azerbaijan took a lead with their first attack. Javid Huseynov won the ball in midfield and laid off to Aliyev, who bent in a stunning shot from 30 yards .
Azerbaijan looked dangerous on the counter-attack and only a Gareth McAuley block denied Aliyev the chance to try his luck a second time.
Northern Ireland, meanwhile, were enjoying plenty of time on the ball but struggling to make the final pass count.
McGinn worked rookie goalkeeper Salahat Aghayev with a first-time shot from the edge of the area and Dean Shiels played an inviting ball across the face of goal but Azerbaijan survived unscathed.
Another gilt-edged chance came and went on the half-hour, Shiels finding Cathcart with a cushioned header across goal but the Blackpool defender nodded wide.
Chances continued to flow in the second half, McGinn and Baird the latest to go close. On the hour mark Baird produced arguably the worst miss yet, heading Shane Ferguson’s cross wide at the far post.
By now the hosts’ frustrations were apparent after every unsuccessful move and Michael O’Neill played his final card by sending on Healy for Cathcart. It looked like even that would not be enough but five minutes into a generous period of injury time the fan favourite drilled home a free-kick to rescue a point.
NORTHERN IRELAND:Carroll; D Lafferty, McCauley, Cathcart (Healey, 81), Baird, Ferguson, Hughes, Sheils (McCourt, 55), Davis, McGinn (Brunt, 66), K Lafferty.
AZERBAIJAN: Agayev, Ramaldanov (Naziri, 72), Abbasov, Medvedev, Levin, Gokdemir (Hugeynov, 63), Huseynov, Amirguliev, Ozkara (Javadov, 78), Aliyev, Nadirov. Referee: Victor Shvetsov (Ukraine).